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Breaking Down Barriers

Interview by Angelika Jung, blaupause – May 22, 2007 • The original version of this article appeared in the February 2007 edition of blaupause, the members' magazine of the German-Speaking SAP User Group (DSAG)

German version

The SAP Accessibility Team is the first port of call for accessibility-related questions from in-house developers and customers. The team members translate relevant legislation into the developers' languages and provide information about the accessibility status of SAP products.

Accessibility is a high priority issue for SAP, with both social factors and legal requirements motivating the company to take action. Five years ago, the SAP Accessibility Team was established in Walldorf with the aim of making accessibility a fixed part of the development lifecycle. The specialist team now includes ten employees and is the central contact point for internal and external queries about accessibility. Dr. Tanja Schätz, the head of the team at SAP AG, sums up its role: "Before we can inform our external partners about the accessibility of our software, we first need to carry out consultations internally at SAP. We translate legislation into the languages of the developers, write manuals for different programming languages, and create how-to guides."


Dr. Tanja Schätz und Gisbert Loff 

Dr. Tanja Schätz, Gisbert Loff e-mail: accessibility@sap.com

A dream came true for Dr. Tanja Schätz when she joined the Accessibility Team four years ago. She was able to combine the social aspects of her work with her technical background. The holder of a doctorate in biophysics now heads the Accessibility Team in Walldorf.

Gisbert Loff's motivation was of a more technical nature. Since 1991 he has worked on SAP's user interfaces as a developer, in product management, and in planning. Today he is Vice President of the SAP User Experience department at SAP AG.



Multitude of Standards

SAP delivers a global product and thus needs to accommodate the differing legislation in countries such as the USA, Great Britain, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in a single solution. "We have to accommodate a multitude of standards to make sure that we do not miss out any aspects," is how Gisbert Loff, Vice President of SAP User Experience at SAP AG, explains the challenge facing the team. Sometimes, competing guidelines force a market-driven or technology-driven decision to be made which cannot fully take into account the legislation in each country. Tanja Schätz explains: "We have defined a standard at SAP that is based on the USA's Section 508 and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These guidelines themselves form the basis for many European laws. We have combined all requirements relevant to SAP in our standard."


Improving Accessibility

SAP's external commitments with respect to accessibility legislation motivate the team to take a close look at SAP's products. The software and service structures are tested at various points of the product lifecycle, sometimes in Walldorf, but primarily at a lab in India. These tests determine the nature of the product and its status with respect to accessibility. Some SAP products are not yet fully accessible, but the more up-to-date an application or technology is, the easier it becomes for developers to meet accessibility requirements. SAP is working hard to increase the number of accessible products. Gisbert Loff: "Our aim is to incorporate as many accessibility features as possible in the technologies and frameworks that form the underlying software layers. If application developers use suitable technologies, they no longer need to worry about meeting certain requirements, such as keyboard access or color customizing. Newer technologies cater better for aspects like these, since we were involved with the development of these technologies from the start." The team now plays a much larger part in testing these basis technologies and makes sure that new technologies allow accessible applications to be developed. Examples of these basis technologies include Dynpro and Web Dynpro, which are available as part of SAP NetWeaver. Many applications are developed using these technologies.


Which Products Are Accessible?

The definitive accessibility status of a product is recorded in Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates (VPATs). These templates document the accessibility or partial accessibility of a product or its individual components, and are available on request (see the e-mail address above). One example is the administrator role in SAP NetWeaver. If an ERP product is based on an SAP NetWeaver release with an enhanced administrator role, a database administrator with a visual impairment benefits from improved accessibility features for this ERP system.

The Accessibility Roadmap is a blueprint for the future. This is a declaration of intent by SAP to guarantee certain product characteristics before a specified deadline in the product planning process, usually involving a time frame of two to three years. The Accessibility Team can provide more details on request. The roadmap can change, however, subject to changes being made to product lifecycles or to legislation.


Amendments Are Expected

Many countries are planning changes to accessibility legislation. Along with experts from other software vendors, the SAP Accessibility Team is involved in efforts to amend Section 508 (USA), the Ordinance on Barrier-Free Information Technology or BITV (Germany), and the WCAG (the Web Accessibility Initiative from W3C). The overall aim is to harmonize legislation. "There is a great deal of fragmentation in Europe, with each country having its own legislation. The global situation is relatively disparate, and we need to concentrate on what requirements countries have in common when we incorporate requirements into our products," according to Dr. Tanja Schätz. "Harmonization of legislation would simplify our work greatly. We expect criteria to become more stringent, but hopefully also more precise," explains Gisbert Loff. He advises software developers to familiarize themselves with the topic of accessibility at an early stage to avoid increased costs further down the line. If accessibility features such as keyboard access or color customizing are incorporated into the architecture right from the start, there will be no need to test each application again every time legislation is tightened up. Gisbert Loff concludes: "In our in-house development teams we've seen that those who started first have incurred the lowest costs. An accessible workplace will always involve an increased amount of spending, since special keyboards, screen readers, and other assistive technologies all require investment. The last thing we want is for the software to become more expensive as well."


Further Information

Book on Accessibility with SAP NetWeaver

The book Developing Accessible Applications with SAP NetWeaver (ISBN 978-1-59229-112-0) is scheduled for publication by SAP Press in July 2007. The German version has been published in May (Entwicklung barrierefreier Software mit SAP NetWeaver; ISBN 978-3-89842-862-0).

DSAG, blaupause

blaupause is the members' magazine of the German-speaking SAP User Group (DSAG).


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