SAP encourages employees to work together no matter what disabilities they have, but questions do come up now and again. We recently caught up with two blind colleagues, Matthias Kaiser and Alexander Kuban, who showed us what their average day is like at the company.
When Matthias and Alexander got started at SAP around 20 years ago, they were two of the first employees at the company with a visual impairment. Now that they’ve witnessed the evolution in how people interact with their disabled peers both at SAP and in society at large, you might call them seasoned experts on the subject.
Wide-Ranging Field of Accessibility
“And all of a sudden, the thing had a touchscreen on it!” says Matthias, workstream lead for machine learning, recalling his last move to a new SAP building. Upon arriving, he was searching for the “black coffee” button on the building’s new, high-tech machine when he succeeded in touching his way to a frothy latte macchiato – which landed right where his cup was supposed to be. Not long after, Matthias found himself alone in front of a conference phone in a new meeting room, wondering how he was going to dial a number. The distinct, tactile buttons he was used to finding on such devices had also been replaced by a touchscreen.
Seemingly minor everyday examples like these show how the smallest changes can have a major impact when you fail to consider the consequences for people with disabilities. Matthias – who previously worked at the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, performed AI and cognition science research at SAP in Palo Alto, and taught at Stanford – looks on the bright side of situations like these. “They lead to conversations with colleagues that often result in synergies,” he reveals.
While Matthias also does his best to turn the overlooked aspects of accessibility into opportunities for improvement, he points out that a single universal understanding of the concept doesn’t exist. Accessibility means different things to different people, he says, and everyone handles related situations in a different way. “These days, I wouldn’t want to go without a touchscreen,” he adds. After all, every time he needs a hand at the coffee machine is a chance to catch up with a colleague or meet someone new.
Exploring the everyday lives of blind colleagues underscores just how important accessibility is, particularly in software. Screen readers, for example, enable them to read and interact with the information their computers display. Accessibility plays a prominent role in how SAP software is developed, as well. Alexander Kuban, an expert in accessible IT, describes extensive knowledge of user requirements as essential and a reason why this area is a good destination for colleagues who have trouble seeing. Although he acknowledges that accessibility awareness has increased significantly, Alexander still sees room for improvement and hopes the topic is given more priority in the future. “Accessibility has to become one of the fundamental tenets of any development work,” he declares.
Inclusion offers benefits to every single person at SAP, not to mention our society at large. I do my best to promote this subject in pragmatic ways that focus on real action. Anyone who wants to get on board is more than welcome!
– Alexander Eckhardt, Inclusion Lead
Inclusion: A Priority at SAP
SAP’s action plan for implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the second edition of which is planned for 2017, affirms just how serious the company is about inclusion. A dedicated inclusion team has also been formed to meet the goals SAP has thus set in promoting the involvement of people with disabilities. The person currently responsible for inclusion at its locations in Germany is Alexander Eckhardt, who is helping affected employees find solutions everyone can benefit from. Right now, he’s trying to figure out how the general trend toward open-plan offices can be adapted to the advantage of those with disabilities, as well.
Meanwhile, SAP is also working to raise inclusion awareness, including through employee-driven campaigns like the “Darkness Mobile” in the summer of 2016, which featured a vehicle in which colleagues could experience a normal day in the life of a blind person. They also had the chance to see a live demonstration of a screen reader, find out how a hearing aid sounds and feels, and make their way through an obstacle course that highlighted the barriers those in wheelchairs constantly face.
From a resource-oriented perspective, a person who might seem like the weakest link can turn out to be one of the strongest.
– Matthias Kaiser, Chief Architect, Artificial Intelligence
Focus on Strengths
One thing all three of these SAP employees have in common is an approach that focuses on people’s strengths. When it comes to inclusion, they believe the most important aspects are improving the conversation with all those involved, helping them become aware of their own abilities, and giving them the chance to apply these skills effectively.
The idea is to move beyond the (often still prevalent) fixation on what people with disabilities can’t do and concentrate on what they really can – and what they can teach the rest of us. One of the initiatives at the forefront of this approach is the SAP program Autism at Work, which seeks to integrate more people who have been diagnosed with autism into the company in order to put their special abilities to use.
Outside of SAP, the Berlin initiative Discovering Hands is also setting a strong example by training visually impaired women to provide support for breast cancer diagnostics. Their limited eyesight serves these women well in this regard, as it gives them a highly refined sense of touch.
Turning disabilities into strengths – for the three SAP colleagues featured here, this represents the future of inclusion.