WordPress Accessibility Team Lead Resigns, Cites Political Complications Related to Gutenberg

WordPress Accessibility Team lead Rian Rietveld has resigned due to what she describes as political complications and problems with working on Gutenberg accessibility.

“The last year, especially the last few weeks have been too politically complicated for me,” Rietveld said. “It’s better that someone else takes the lead now.”

Her post outlines challenges the accessibility team has encountered in working with Gutenberg without having a skilled React developer on their team. Their contributions have primarily been limited to testing and reporting issues. Rietveld said team members experienced frustration when they tested and improved functionality but saw it changed at a later stage, breaking accessibility requirements again. She also cites a lack of commitment to keyboard testing new features before implementation.

Rietveld said she used her network to try to get more companies and developers with React skills involved in Gutenberg accessibility contribution. In March, tests they ran on the plugin revealed a staggering number of Gutenberg accessibility issues that remain unresolved.

“The results indicated so many accessibility issues that most testers refused to look at Gutenberg again,” Rietveld said. She included a statement from fellow contributor Andrea Fercia, who has been highly active in testing Gutenberg functionality and reporting issues:

While the Gutenberg team has worked hard to implement some fundamental accessibility features (e.g. focus management, navigate landmark regions), the overall user experience is terribly complicated for users with accessibility needs at the point the new editor is barely usable for them.

The main reason for this lack of overall accessibility is in the overall Gutenberg design, where accessibility hasn’t been incorporated in the design process.

Feedback from accessibility users has been constantly evaluated and Gutenberg is actually a regression in terms of accessibility level, compared to the previous editor.

The Gutenberg project now has a dedicated developer from Automattic, Matthew MacPherson, who is working on accessibility issues and Rietveld said she hopes the core accessibility team will continue to offer him all the support he needs.

Rietveld’s resignation is a major loss to the WordPress project. For years her leadership and contributions have demonstrated the project’s commitment to serving those with a disability.

In 2016, she was instrumental in WordPress adopting accessibility coding standards for all new and updated code. Rietveld was recognized by Knowbility.org as “a knowledgeable, dedicated, and effective advocate for accessibility in the global WordPress community,” whose achievements had a major impact on the application used by more than 25% of the world at that time. She took first place in the Individual Achievement category of the Heroes of Accessibility Awards.

News of Rietveld’s resignation roused an outpouring of sadness and gratitude on Twitter. The WordPress community thanked her for her work and that of other accessibility contributors, whose efforts often go unappreciated.

“I’m not leaving WordPress nor accessibility, and in fact maybe now I can actually work on accessibility again,” Rietveld said. “I will keep giving talks and workshops. I also want to do research and work on tickets. But in my own pace.

“I will join the a11y table if asked on contributor days, but maybe I’ll just go to a museum instead.”

24 Comments


  1. Without going completely Mulder and Scully, can I ask why my previous comment was removed after being approved?

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    1. Because it was more advertising your fork than anything. It wasn’t really on topic. If you want to contact Rian, you can do so privately. It’s more effective than leaving a note for her in Tavern comments.

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      1. I think that Scott’s initial message, which I read by the way, was pointed and good for public consumption considering how divisive Gutenberg is. Removing his comment only highlights this more.

        In case you are wondering, there is a place for Gutenberg. The problem is in the manner of its implementation, mainly in its UX, premature forced introduction and some features/functionality that it and the current editor crucially lack.

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  2. “Damn the consequences — Full speed ahead!”

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  3. Maybe this will be a wake up call that was needed. Decisions made by core developers in the name of immediate productivity and in pursuit of perverting goals (50% market share) under arbitrary timelines have tons of unintended consequences.

    Inclusiveness, open source ideals, democratising development… These are still ideals of the WP project are they not? There’s a big gap between the ideals and the direction WP has been going in.

    Gutenberg has raised barriers to entry for anyone looking to contribute or work with WordPress code itself, this seems like a prime example. We’re now leaving it up to people who are the narrow minority of people, enlarging the gap between contributors, users, 3rd party developers on one hand and core developers on the other.

    Nothing signifies this more to me than the fact that Gutenberg in a departure from standard practice has been shipping with code that can’t be easily debugged on the spot (with only built/minified code on offer) without numerous extra steps. It has made a significant part of the codebase the preserve of people who are both comfortable with react and have the inclination and confidence to setup a development environment. Effectively, a signal this sends is that working on that code is for core developers, or those with their abilities. It alters how people behave when they run into problems.

    I can’t help but note the gap between what well-meaning core team members say and what is the actual case.

    When React was chosen, one of the arguments was that was easy enough to learn and that React being so popular would be an advantage in courting attention from the wider JS community. That certainly doesn’t seem to have been the case here, with highly motivated contributors struggling to get productive and struggling to find people who do have the required expertise to help.

    It was also said that React would only be a layer underneath, with WordPress providing its own more agnostic api layer in between, playing down the need to basically master React to be productive working on core and develop stuff on top of Gutenberg. This just isn’t true and it’s echoed in this story. If you want to be productive, you need to know React, full stop.

    It’s been said that Gutenberg has been in “stable release” for a good while now, but every release we see the roll out of new features and major tweaks, while many people routinely encounter bugs that result in lost work and time.

    It’s one thing to break some eggs in pursuit of a better WordPress experience for the whole, but I find it very hard to think this is the way to go about it. WordPress became a success because the barrier to entry was low and invited people in. We now seem to have switched to a model that seems preoccupied by having a small number of makers produce an end product that is going to wow everyone, particularly the new users who would be choosing between WordPress and hosted solutions like Wix.

    In that model, development happens more like in a company and users are more like customers who do not need to know how the sausage is made. The real brilliance happens in the core team, who divine their own solutions and parse what customers say with the understanding that the customer doesn’t really know what they are talking about. The response to feedback so far tells the story. You get the same response a company might give. Bad reviews can be treated as noise. It can be labeled as ‘interesting data’ to the CEO. Or it can be taken as a signal that the coding rockstars just need to work a little harder to get it right. This furthers grows the mental divide between core developers and the wider community, while many community members feel even more divorced from how WordPress evolves.

    It’s not by design but with the dominant influence of those with high level js skills and react familiarity working in core means all other people are effectively obstacles that slow things down. It’s happening between all categories of WordPressers. Even experienced people who’ve done tons of core work or are noted contributors in other ways have adopted an overly deferential position because they don’t feel as competent as others js-centric devs. Contributors with different expertises (like accessibility or privacy) feel like they are at a disadvantage because they are not the first class citizens in core development world.

    One of the worst things about this is that the culture just might continue to change to match this dynamic. Users may start treating WordPress more and more like some product produced by a technical team of workers and less like a co-owned community project in which everyone is a potential contributor. The most bewildering thing is how Matt is helping drive this, by pointing at market share ambitions and being preoccupied with competitors that most in the WP community don’t even care about. There’s no profound vision unfolding here, if it were we’d be building the best editor possible for the sake of users, not for the sake of ‘survival’ concerns, growth of market share and certainly not under the pressure of artificial time limits while deprioritising other important things, like accessibility and the approachability of WordPress in general.

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    1. I agree full heartedly and I’ve said similar things in the past. The WP core was moving in a good direction with openness, transparency community inclusion just to go the other way when Gutenberg first came about.

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      1. Yep. At some point in the last couple of years (I feel around the time the Customizer came into play), WordPress has shifted from open-source with a hosted platform to a hosted platform with an open-source option.

        It’s the only way I can wrap my head around Gutenberg and the changes it will be bringing (now and in the future).

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    2. One of the best comments about Gutenberg so far!

      Matt, please try to respond to this without dismissing the points.

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    3. Thank you Peter Knight. Your comment is everything I’ve been feeling and saying about this whole project.

      This is definitely not the WordPress way of doing things.

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  4. Rian makes a good point – a React Dev is needed in this position.

    But she’s also a canary – the WordPress ecosystem will need a lot more skilled JavaScript / React devs, from support on up to engineering.

    But if you know React, is WordPress the best place for you to spend your time?

    So, are we prepared for talent getting a lot more expensive? Are we prepared for less contributions from a lot fewer people?

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  5. As someone who appreciates accessibility. Particularly the improvements made in the last two years and during various Iterations of Gutenberg. I’m saddened by this announcement.

    The Accessibility Team has been doing a fantastic job and I have noticed when something gets fixed in Gutenberg only to show up again in a later stage.

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  6. I am sure that is only the tip of the iceberg we can see as plain users of WP. The whole release of Gutenberg will be something like the first trip of Titanic: the WP-community will just hit that iceberg because those at the bridge are simply too self-confident to hear the voice of the vast majority of devs and even users.

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  7. Gutenberg feels like as if your boss has found out some of the staff are using InDesign so replaces everyone’s Word with it. (But does say you can reinstall Word yourself if you really want and that’s ok… but is still going to implicitly pressure you to change by constantly talking up InDesign, making you feel left behind.)

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  8. Rian is a wonderful person, and I thank her very much!

    I’m afraid that I’m not surprised to hear why she’s leaving.

    Thanks again, Rian!

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  9. I must be wrong, but it seems like the project management and specification of Gutenberg has been “Ooh, I’ve got an idea! How about we add an X, move the Y and change the way the Z works”

    Repeated, for 18 months. It’s so incoherent.

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  10. At many schools, Gutenberg will be legally barred until the accessibility issues are resolved.

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    1. Schools and Governments and any site where accessibility is a minimum criteria.

      Using the Classic Editor is not an option here, because eventually (I saw somewhere mentioned two years?) too much with Core will change so that even that plugin won’t do any good anymore.

      I therefore expect a massive walkout to the fork!

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      1. There are massive government organizations (hello US State Department), enormous county governments (Arlington County, VA), and other extremely large sites that took the leap recently and converted HUGE portions of their web/infrastructure over to WordPress. And without accessibility at the forefront of such a massive change to WordPress, it will require many of these groups to fork away from core WordPress or leave WordPress entirely… which will be a HUGE loss to the community due to contributions made. It really comes down to the “bottom line” for Automattic vs “the best solutions” for the community.

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  11. I don’t understand why they changed it in the first place. It was accessible. We, the disabled community weren’t consulted. I had to add a disable Gutenberg plug-in just to get my classic editor back.

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