Working Unhindered: Powerful Accessibility Features

A system is classed as accessible if people with different physical disabilities can use it without restrictions – in other words, without experiencing system-related barriers. A look behind the scenes at SAP.

We’re in a normal meeting in an unexceptional room with SAP colleagues in Walldorf. There’s nothing to suggest this meeting is anything out of the ordinary — apart from, perhaps, the golden retriever that’s picked a comfortable spot and settled down near today’s speaker.

Dogs at SAP? Maybe this workshop is somehow special after all, somehow especially interesting and informative?

A Different Kind of Workshop

The speaker, Jürgen Fleger, is blind; the Labrador retriever is his guide dog. Most of the colleagues in the meeting room have physical impairments. The topic of the workshop is accessibility functions with Macs, and it’s highly relevant for them. After all, they’re often confronted with situations that hinder their day-to-day work at SAP — from the practical things, such as access to certain buildings, to software that makes their work harder due to its lack of accessibility functions.

Fleger, who became blind as a young man, is here today to give the participants an insight into the most important Mac functions because as the only blind Apple education mentor in Germany, he’s intimately familiar with the needs of many colleagues.

Accessibility as a Societal Topic 

Accessibility means comprehensive access to and unrestricted opportunities in all areas of life that are shaped by humans.” In this translated excerpt from the German Act on Equal Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (BGG), the areas of life referred to include all information and communication products and services. The fact that the BGG only came into force in 2002 shows just how recently accessibility became an issue in European society. In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has applied since 1990.

Because of the strict U.S. legislation to prohibit the discrimination of people with any kind of disability, it was especially important for the American company Apple to design its products to be accessible right from the start. Accessibility functions are now available for the Mac in 40 languages and Apple has its own accessibility hotline. In particular, the prevalence of iPhones and iPads has helped make people with physical disabilities aware of Apple products, which are easy for them to use.

PC or Mac: Comparing Apples to Oranges?

It’s difficult to make generalizations about which accessibility functions are the most important, because needs vary depending on the type of disability. For example, assistive touch is very important for people with impaired motor skills, while voice over is imperative for blind colleagues. With voice over, colleagues work with screen readers that transmit the text on the screen as audio output.

Many of the accessibility functions in Windows and Mac are similar and were, in some cases, developed in parallel. However, according to Fleger, the big difference is the underlying development philosophy: With Apple, all functions for accessible working are an integral part of the overall concept, while Fleger says the accessibility functions for the PC were often tagged on retrospectively or covered using external software. As an example, he cites the screen reader, which is an integrated standard function on all Apple devices. Although Windows does have a light-duty reader function in the form of its speech program Narrator, the screen reader Job Access With Speech (JAWS) has to be installed by users themselves and a license must be purchased for it.

So, where does this difference in approach come from? Fleger says shrewdly: “Even with Apple, it’s certainly not down to starry-eyed idealism.” He refers to, among other things, the American legislation, which made accessibility compulsory much earlier. Apple, in particular, took this requirement very seriously right from the start, in order to improve the user experience for all its users.

An Individual Decision

In today’s business world, you can’t get by without Windows. Nevertheless, there may be areas in which Apple could be used more. Ultimately, everyone must decide what best fits his or her individual situation. There’s no one-size-fits-all. The hearing-impaired SAP colleague Ulrich Gerlach, for example, opted for a Mac after the workshop with Fleger. He explained: “I was particularly motivated by the better intelligibility of speech and the possibility of being able to telephone without a headset.”

For a young man who Jürgen Fleger recently trained to use an iPhone, the Apple product was the tool of choice, too. The decisive factor here was the iPhone’s Switch Control function, which enables people to navigate their iPhone without using their hands – a vital feature because the young man had lost both hands and both eyes in a bomb attack.

In the end, the final decision is simply based on which device lets you work unhindered. Fleger says: “Only when we create an infrastructure that enables people with impairments to work without encountering barriers will society recognize the enormous strength of their abilities.”

Tips and Tricks for Developers and Authors

  • Every photo should have an alt attribute, so that people with visual impairments can perceive the picture as audio output.
  • When coding in Java, bear in mind that this development language’s support for screen readers is very poor.
  • PDF formats are very difficult for blind colleagues to handle.
  • All push buttons should have labels that can be read with a screen reader.
  • Remember that a little humor goes a long way!

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