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Special report: How accessible is WordPress?

By Graham Armfield

WordPress is the world’s most popular content management system (CMS). It now powers over 20% of the world’s websites, and that figure is steadily rising. People choose WordPress for its flexibility as a web platform, and because it can be used to create a stylish website extremely quickly, using freely available themes (or templates) and plugins. But how accessible are the websites produced with WordPress and the admin screens used to manage those sites?

WordPress is a true open source project. It has been created and amended over ten years by literally hundreds of developers. Sadly, many of these developers had little or no knowledge or experience of accessibility, meaning that many inaccessible practices were baked into WordPress themes, plugins and admin screens.

– Admin screens and accessibility.
In 2011, accessibility of the WordPress admin screens was pretty dire and many of the screens were unusable to anyone relying on assistive technology or keyboard interaction. Isolated accessibility initiatives had previously been undertaken, but they weren’t always easy to find.

Since then, however, the Make WordPress Accessible Team (MWAT) has made a significant difference. MWAT is a small group of volunteers committed to improving accessibility. The situation is now a lot better, thanks to MWAT talking about accessibility at WordPress meetups, raising bug tickets, and in some cases, actually submitting improved code.

Now, all new functionality introduced into the admin area goes through an accessibility review by MWAT volunteers. Existing inaccessible components like the Media Library and Theme Customizer have also been vastly improved.

However, amending or adding new pages or blog posts can still be a little fraught for screen-reader users. Keyboard shortcuts do exist to speed up editing and formatting of pages and blog posts, but they are not readily advertised.

– Themes and accessibility.
WordPress themes provide the template for the parts of a WordPress website that the world sees. Off-the-shelf themes are freely available, and any PHP developer can easily create a bespoke theme for a business or charity.

Thanks to the Make WordPress Accessible Team, there is now an extra, optional, accessibility audit built into the theme review process. So when theme developers submit their themes to WordPress they can apply for an ‘accessibility-ready’ tag. People searching for an accessible ‘off-the-peg’ theme can use this tag to narrow their search. In October 2015 there were 69 free themes that carried this tag.

That may not sound like many, but it is significant considering there are currently over 3,000 themes available from WordPress. Three recent default themes also have a high level of accessibility, and it is hoped that one day this accessibility audit will be included in the review of all new themes.

Because of past accessibility reviews, there is now nothing in the WordPress core functionality that will prevent the development of a fully accessible website – assuming that an accessibility-ready theme or an accessible bespoke theme is chosen.

– Accessibility of WordPress plugins.Plugins provide useful or desirable extra functionality for websites, such as spam blocking, SEO (search engine optimisation), Twitter feeds, contact forms, lightboxes and carousels. While some areas within WordPress are moving in the right direction, the situation around plugins isn’t.

Like themes, plugins can be submitted by anyone, and although each plugin also goes through a review process, there is no accessibility aspect to that review. Sadly, that means that many plugins can and do compromise the accessibility of a WordPress website, even if an accessible theme is being used and the content authors know their stuff when it comes to accessibility.

Example issues here include: contact form generators where labels are not linked to input fields; lightbox plugins where keyboard interaction is not possible and where focus management is poor; and carousels that break with keyboard interaction or with movement that can’t be stopped.

– How can the situation improve?

As mentioned above, the Make WordPress Accessible Team is small, and all members fit their WordPress accessibility work around other paid assignments. The team needs more people to take part in regular accessibility testing sessions, and to transform results into bug tickets for developers to fix.

Each new version of WordPress contains new accessible functionality and various accessibility fixes – there just needs to be more emphasis on it to increase the rate of change.

– Would you like to join in?Read more about the Make WordPress Accessible Team and help them with their work at the links below:

Short link:
http://bit.ly/1WAO6rN .

Full link:
https://make.wordpress.org/accessibility/ .

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