Why Accessibility Matters for WordPress Themes and Their Users

“Do you ever read the subtitles on a video so you didn’t need to unmute it?” asked William Patton, a representative from the WordPress Themes Team. “Used the ‘beep’ from a crosswalk to know when to cross the road? Found yourself reading the info panel at an airport? Those things are considered features, but in reality, they are aids for people with additional needs.”

As I talked with Patton and other reps from the Themes Team, it was clear they believed accessibility was a vital piece of the theme-building puzzle. The team has made small moves in the last year to bring more themes up to standards. However, it has been a slow-going process.

Last July, the team initiated a plan to add a new guideline every two months or so that would address a single accessibility issue. It would become every theme author’s responsibility to make sure they were meeting the new guidelines. It would be every reviewer’s responsibility to understand how to test guidelines as they were implemented. Thus far, the team has required only that themes have a working skip-to-content link and keyboard-capable navigation menus.

Not every theme author was excited about the move. Some have still shown resistance a year later.

Last week, we covered the Astra theme’s news of hitting 1 million active installs. A commenter made a point that the data shows that end-users do not care about accessibility — the Astra theme makes no mention of being accessibility-ready. The conclusion was that the Themes Team should not be implementing such guidelines based on the success of one of the directory’s most popular themes.

While there are several things we could do to pick apart the original comment and the limited view of the situation, we can instead use it as a catalyst to discuss why accessibility is something that should be at the forefront of every theme author’s mind. Patton, along with Themes Team representatives Carolina Nymark and Denis Žoljom, had a lot to say on the subject.

The overarching theme was that awareness is vital and that theme developers play a crucial role in making the web more accessible.

Awareness Is Key

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Žoljom likened the awareness of accessibility to that of a cisgender person looking at the world from the perspective of a transgender person. Once he became aware of larger issues, he made sure to address gender-specific pronouns in his code comments, such as replacing instances of “he” with “they.” He hopes such small changes spark similar changes from others.

He said the situation was the same with accessibility. “It might not mean much to a person who doesn’t have any disabilities, but putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes changes one’s perspective. This is why we started to include things like skip links, keyboard nav, etc.”

The team does not hope theme authors will merely become technically proficient at addressing accessibility issues in their themes. While that would be a help from a review standpoint, it addresses only the symptoms rather than root causes of the issues. Instead, by making more developers aware, they will begin to look at development from multiple perspectives. They will ask how a screen-readers will handle their theme. They will ask whether their colors have enough contrast for low-vision users to read. They will wonder if non-mouse users can navigate their users’ sites.

The technical stuff is the easy part. Changing perspectives and becoming more empathetic toward those who are different is much more difficult. But not impossible.

“A lot of us who build for the web are lacking some basic insights into what it is like to have additional needs beyond what is our own normal,” said Patton. “There is a saying: ‘if you could see it through my eyes, you would see it differently.’ If you could see through the eyes of someone with color blindness or impaired vision, you quite literally would see things differently.”

The trouble with humans, in general, is that it can sometimes be hard to see things through someone else’s eyes. Of course, there are tools to simulate accessibility issues for developers, so that helps. However, these tools do not replicate what it is like to walk through life with a particular impairment or disability. Some of us can only partially glimpse the difficulties that others may have when navigating the web. This does not mean that we cannot address the downfalls of the software we build and become more inclusive to all people, especially if we are proactive when issues are raised.

Nymark identified a few areas where the community can improve awareness:

  • Make sure that all contributors are aware of the WordPress accessibility requirements so that all new features are accessible.
  • Highlight accessibility improvements when WordPress is updated.
  • Feature more diverse use cases and highlight areas where the accessibility that is built into WordPress has helped people share and access important content.

“The themes team hopes that by making theme authors aware of accessibility issues, authors will learn that even small changes to their code and design can have a great positive impact,” she said.

Is Accessibility Important to End-Users?

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Certainly, accessibility is important for some users. It certainly mattered to Guillermo Robles, a blind man who sued pizza chain Domino’s in 2016 for an inaccessible website. The court case was important enough that it moved through the system all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ultimately, the higher court denied Domino’s appeal of an earlier ruling. The U.S. 9th Circuit court had previously ruled that business websites fall under Title III of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and must meet accessibility standards.

This was a landmark case in the U.S. for accessibility advocates last October. It is also worth remembering as we near the upcoming 30th anniversary of the ADA on July 26.

Domino’s is a billion-dollar business. The company has enough money to fight such battles for years. They also have the money to hire world-class web developers to correct any accessibility issues.

However, for small business owners, hiring a single developer, much less an entire agency or team, is often a non-starter. Many small businesses are fortunate to break even. WordPress and its ecosystem of free or low-cost solutions have democratized eCommerce on a scale previously unwitnessed. It means that mom-and-pop stores can have an online presence. It means teens can begin selling their custom art and a multitude of others can make money online without the backing of wads of cash.

For these small business owners, many are unaware of accessibility concerns. They pick up a few plugins and find a theme that suitably matches their branding. The possibility of an impending accessibility-related lawsuit is the furthest thing from their mind. This is a major reason that WordPress needs to be a leader in meeting accessibility standards. Themes, which are the part of the site that visitors will interact with, are possibly the most important part of that equation.

Some would argue that small business owners should understand the laws of their jurisdiction. That is true. However, it is also partly the responsibility of the software creators, says the Theme Team representatives.

“Yes, the technology should account for additional needs,” said Patton. “Yes, the tooling should enable people to make good choices with regards to this. Yes, it should be easy to meet a minimum level of accessibility in the things we create with ease. Yes, it should be a fair assumption that the choices available to pick from are accessible.”

The web is inherently accessible out of the box. Raw HTML is read and output by web browsers in such a way that the content can be accessed by anyone. Patton says that it is the things that developers do from that point forward that makes that experience better or worse.

“Trade-offs are made that are well-intentioned but not always helpful,” he said. “Design trade-offs are the easiest to point out. Taking text and embedding it into an image means that some of its value is lost in exchange for it looking pretty. Using closely matching colors for text and background might create an interesting effect to some people but for others, it makes it impossible to read. Sometimes it’s about balancing those trade-offs with the needs of others, but it is those kinds of trade-offs that most people struggle to give up.”

Nymark described some more technical issues that the average end-user should expect to simply be a non-issue. For example, it is reasonable to assume that a theme installed from the official WordPress directory would be free from HTML, PHP, and JavaScript errors. These are items that users should not have to worry about checking before activating the theme on their site. The errors should simply not exist.

It is that level of quality control that end-users should expect in terms of accessibility, an assurance that the theme does all the things it is supposed to do. It is not about whether end-users “care” about accessibility.

“If a form on a shop checkout page is not working, this can lead to loss of income,” she said. “Users rely on the technical solution provided by plugins and themes and expect everyone to be able to use their shop. Whether or not the site owner recognizes this as an accessibility issue is irrelevant because their page just needs to work.”

Why Theme Authors Should Care

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“If those who choose themes don’t consider accessibility and the theme author did not consider it, then the [visitors] of the sites built with those themes are the ones that lose out,” said Patton. “It’s not a huge leap to realize that low accessibility on your site directly equates to a reduction of potential users.”

He said that end-users would naturally assume the themes they are picking from do not have accessibility issues. However, that assumption is typically far from accurate.

“Theme authors should care about the accessibility of their creations so that the people picking their themes don’t need to use it as a deciding factor,” he said.

My go-to response is that developers should concern themselves with accessibility because it is for the collective good. Humans should care about making sure that all other humans have the same freedoms that they enjoy, which are often take for granted.

Even those who cannot view it from that perspective should be able to appreciate that it is a smart business decision. It makes little sense to leave money on the table, especially if you are a developer who is selling a theme or upselling additional features on top of a free theme. There is an entire segment of users that represents money lost.

Additionally, more and more countries are implementing laws around web accessibility. Over time, such laws will be commonplace, particularly in the business sector. Inaccessible themes will lose users as such laws are enforced. Now is a good time to get ahead of impending change.

More Guidelines Ahead

The WordPress Themes Team has been slow about adopting additional guidelines surrounding accessibility. However, more are expected to land at some point. Team reps want to work with authors and reviewers alike to make the transition as painless as possible.

“We have not added anything else because theme authors are still not releasing themes with working implementations of skip links and usable keyboard navigation,” said Patton. “When those two things become habitual, it will be time to introduce another aspect as a requirement.”

The next guideline in line is expected to be underlined links in the post content. This would be an easy win if the team can get past the current stage. Right now, the team reps are unsure when that will happen.

“The fact that this has taken so long for authors to get this right probably indicates that we need to do better at guiding them to resources to learn how to do it and why it is important,” said Patton. “Perhaps that is a better avenue to pursue than looking to implement additional asks of them.”


20 responses to “Why Accessibility Matters for WordPress Themes and Their Users”

  1. It would be great if Astra theme, popular as it is, had the accessibility-ready tag on WordPress.org. According to this thread (https://wordpress.org/support/topic/astra-accessibility-ready-tag-removed/) they did have it at one point, but the tag was removed until the final review. That was most of 3 years ago, and I have not been able to find out if the theme was resubmitted for the accessibility review.

    The funny thing is that on Astra’s site they say:

    Astra is accessible and follows WCAG 2.0 standards. It meets the AA level which is essential for usability.

    It would be nice to see the evidence behind that claim.

  2. The main problem with accessibility is the term itself. It’s about a universal user experience.

    Let’s ask ourselves: why make a theme and then make it hard to use on purpose? Why make a theme and only allow a subset of people to use it? Do you only allow people with a first name in the first half of the alphabet to log in to your site?

    The industry needs to stop selling it as a checkbox, we need to stop viewing it as something extra to do. It is part of everything we make and do already, not a on off switch.

    It should be expected now, it’s a bug when someone can’t use your theme, and your theme is not inclusive when people can’t use it.

  3. I remember reading here on the tavern that the accessibility lead (or was it the whole team) for Gutenberg completely quit because accessbility was completely broken and could never be fixed, and that Automatic wasn’t taking it seriously.

    Has there been any change on that front yet?

  4. There are a lot of things to comment on this post, but in general I just think things are being looked at from the wrong perspective.

    A small fraction of WP users wants to add a shop to their site – so WP doesn’t come with WooCommerce preinstalled. Few users want to create custom user roles, so there are addon plugins that offer the ability to create them.

    But then suddenly not every WP user needs accessibility aids, and still that must be in core. Even worse, it is being pushed on to 3rd party developers to adopt them in their own products.

    In my opinion, WP core should only have the features that will be needed/used by a large enough fraction of its users. Everything else should be left to extensions (themes and plugins). And under no circumstance should the WP team impose any obligation on these extension developers to include the demands of more users. Especially since this only happens very selectively.

    A lot of the text is about creating empathy with those who need the aids. I can only understand that the author believes that those who do not support accessibility aids in every theme have no empathy for those who need them.

    I can’t speak for everyone else, but that is certainly not my case. It must be awful to have any kind of impairment, and I really hope people who do can find aids in and out of WP that will make their lives easier.

    But I believe the motto should change from “It’s okay to be different” (which is correct in itself, it’s just misplaced) to “It’s okay to add plugins to make your WP more what you need.”

    • It’s an interesting perspective you have, however I think you are looking at it wrong. Accessibility is not a feature and should never be considered as such. In fact accessibility in webdesign has been a blind spot for many years.

      People with a disability are not some marketing target group that you can dismiss, they are a part of the society and should not be subordinated or discriminated. When you build a website that is not accessible, you are in fact doing just that.

      Accessibility on the web goes beyond WordPress (see W3.org). These days web accessibility is even required by law in more and more situations.

      • What you don’t see is the economic loss from developers being forced to make themes accessible when their customers don’t demand it. From an economic point of view, this is inefficient relative to a free market.

        Noting that personally I try to develop with accessibility in mind but that is my choice.

        • I don’t see…? My reply was pointed towards Felipe, who states that accessibility should not belong in core, but in a plugin.

          I don’t build themes for wp.org. However I do client work and always make sure my hours are billable. If you end up with too many unbillable hours in client work then in my opinion something went wrong in the previous process (discussing requirements & expectations, estimation hours and so on). My clients don’t ask for accessibility, but I can surely explain why I think their website should be, especially when building for organizations in the public sector.

          In my opinion, having a theme featured on wp.org is considered to be a privilege and not so much an entitlement. If wp.org raises the bar on theme requirements, like accessibility, I’d rather encourage that.

          Also I think making a theme accessible and building an accessible theme are different things. Building with accessibility in mind might be be less time consuming than fixing an unaccessible theme.

          Like I said, it’s been a blind spot for many years, let’s correct this. Not so long ago websites weren’t responsive, yet here we are.

        • No, accessibility that is built in from the beginning is not more expensive.

          A button is not more expensive than a div or a span.

          A visible label is not more expensive than the time you put on hiding them or making them look like placeholders.

          Because the HTML, when used correctly, is mostly accessible in the first place, it is the changes and additions that creators add, that makes the websites less accessible.

    • What you meant to say is “a few people don’t understand how their website needs to be accessible”. If a theme is downloaded 10k times from the .org repo, it could be seen by millions of people who visit the website using the theme. In the US, they have 54m people with disabilities, 18% of the population have some form of disability which requires a modification to the website. Would you like to annoy 18% of your website visitors?

      It makes no difference to the website owner if they have accessibility features enabled in the theme but it will make a big difference to disabled visitors to their website! WordPress is the biggest cms in the world, it should be the leader in accessibility and making changes which impact the way we use the web. If accessibility wasn’t added to the theme, website owners wouldn’t do it, this would impact their visitors and potentially the website owners revenue.

      Adding accessiblity to the theme helps the visitors who need the features but also helps the website owner by being able to allow those with disabilities to use their website, comfortably. There should be NO reason not to be totally onboard with this. It’s a win win for everyone and the website owner doesn’t need to do anything as the theme author is the one putting in the work to add these features.

    • You are welcome to make a theme that does not consider any additional needs and share it with anyone you wanted to. Not all themes are suitable for all users and not all themes are suitable for the .org directory. That is fine, nobody is preventing anyone from doing that :)

  5. I read here on the bar that the availability lead (or was it the entire group) for Gutenberg totally stopped on the grounds that accessbility was totally broken and would never be fixed, and that Automatic wasn’t taking it seriously.Has there been any change on that front yet?

        • It covers as many parts as it can but there are still a few things it doesn’t have the ability to test by just scanning the code.

          Skip links are hard to test they Keyboard navigation I don’t even know how to test that while it’s unrendered code.

          I had my fingers crossed you might have known how but from trying to figure it out myself I know there isn’t a simple code solution. It’s not super efficient but the best tool right now for it is a human with a browser and a keyboard :)


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