Today UNESCO celebrates the International Day of Universal Access to Information. What does it really take to successfully drive accessibility in the IT industry?
One of the many things that the COVID-19 pandemic has underlined is the significance of access to information and information technology in our lives. When we were suddenly locked down — away from our extended family, friends, classmates, colleagues, and clients — it was technology that kept us connected.
Thanks to technology, we could follow up on the latest global news around COVID-19 and inform ourselves about where to get help in case of an infection and how to best protect ourselves. We could continue learning, working, and driving our projects virtually. We could stay connected to friends and colleagues via social networks and messengers. We could order goods online that we could not procure in our usual way.
Our worlds were reduced to home, laptop screens, and mobile phones. It was not perfect, but we were still connected and informed.
Yet what many of us — I am deliberately not saying most — take for granted is not granted for all.
Today, on International Day for Universal Access to Information, we globally celebrate under the motto “Access to Information – Saving Lives, Building Trust, Bringing Hope!” UNESCO reminds us annually that access to information is a basic human right, albeit one whose impact is not yet felt worldwide due to political, cultural, or technical barriers.
For me, the day has become one for personal reflection. Providing access to information technology has been driving my work for eight years at SAP. My team’s responsibility is to provide the ground for our product teams to build accessibility into our products.
After all these years, I can firmly say that accessibility needs three things to thrive: inclusion, curiosity, and a process.
The entire IT industry carries with it a huge responsibility. With the design of our products, we inadvertently decide who is in, and who is not. How can we build on our values and help ensure that our products do not exclude users? How can we create a mindset that considers accessibility at the core of our work?
There are two things that can help us here: learning and experience. Experiences influence the way we think and act. These can be our own personal experiences, or even those of others that we witness firsthand. We simply need to be able to connect to an experience in order to understand it. But with the systematic exclusion of people with disabilities from our schools, work life, and even social life, it is inevitable that certain experiences are not part of our collective imaginary.
Personally, I never had a classmate, fellow student, or colleague with digital accessibility needs, not in school, nor during higher education, nor in my professional life before SAP. This is surprising when considering that one in seven people have a disability, but not when considering that inclusion in school is still the exception in many countries, and that the unemployment rate of people with disabilities is 40 percent higher than that of people with no disability of the same age.
Part of the solution is to push strong inclusion policies into the core of your organization. With SAP’s forward-thinking diversity policies, I’ve experienced the benefit of this firsthand. For me, the SAP workforce represents a highly diverse selection of our users in a small cosmos. Having the opportunity to learn from the experiences of others — and getting to experience their pain points with them in action — has made me open my perspective, increase my awareness, and grow my mindset. For me, it has meant enhancing a technical requirement with a real person’s need. This is only possible in an inclusive culture.
We must drive inclusion across all pillars of private, educational, and professional life to be able to design a world that embraces all.
Curiosity is the key to creating excellent accessible solutions: curiosity about people who are different from us, curiosity about exploring, designing, and developing various channels of perception and operation that we ourselves do not necessarily need; curiosity to step into the shoes of others to share their experience and adapt that to our work; curiosity about feedback on our work and our gaps; curiosity about opinions that challenge us; and curiosity to be innovative about accessibility requirements and to go beyond what is needed.
Working on accessibility means life-long learning and having self-awareness that we will never be completely done. With new devices, operating systems, user agents, assistive technologies and innovations, accessibility requirements are a constant work-in-progress. There is no single source of truth that ensures a perfectly accessible user experience. But with curiosity, we can grow and get closer to something that makes us proud.
An accessibility process is key to driving accessibility end-to-end across an organization. A good process is a kind of map that navigates product teams through all the existing accessibility laws, standards, procurement policies, and necessary deliverables and helps them to focus on their work. At SAP, we have an accessibility setup in place that provides a central accessibility policy, compliance planning and reporting, accessibility validation, accessibility compliance reports (VPAT®), accessibility trainings, and accessibility communication.
With these, we help ensure that the accessibility support in our core products continuously improves. Our central accessibility policy is written in a way that is technology-and-device agnostic, and it covers in its current version the latest software accessibility standards. We continuously adjust our setup with the latest study results and customer feedback. Our goal is to bring accessibility into the product development cycle as early as possible and rather than as an afterthought.
For me, digital accessibility feels like a never-ending journey. Yet even this far down the road, I’ve never lost my passion for this work even when I know that there is still a long way to go.
At SAP, we have all ingredients to drive accessibility: An inclusion program that enables a diverse workforce, colleagues that are curious to improve the user experience, and an accessibility process that keeps pace with external regulations. Our goal is that in the end, it will be your choice to be in or out, and not one we have made for you by design.
Nicole Windmann is head of the SAP Accessibility Competence Center.