WordPress Contributors Move Toward Automating Accessibility Testing


Accessibility is one of those areas of WordPress contribution that hardly ever ends up in the spotlight. Much of the work that goes on in this area is invisible to the vast majority of users. Accessibility experts are generally in shorter supply than other types of contributors as well. Why aren’t more people involved in this important aspect of the web?

David Kennedy has been an active member of the WordPress Accessibility team for more than a year, and he believes that accessibility can be an artful science. His involvement began shortly after he started working on Accessible Zen, a free accessible WordPress theme. This led him to attend the weekly IRC meetings and contribute by testing patches.

davidkennedyKennedy first started learning about the basics of web accessibility while working for The Arc, a national nonprofit that helps people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The more he dug into it, the more he enjoyed it. Now it’s part of his daily life as a frontend developer and contributor to WordPress.

Digging Deeper to Find the Beauty of Web Accessibility

I asked Kennedy to give us a window into why so few people are drawn to get involved with accessibility.

“The answers to web accessibility challenges and problems aren’t always clear,” he said. “So much of the right approach often depends on the context of the website or web application in question.”

Harnessing the right solution will often require delving deeper into the specifics of the content you’re trying to communicate. Kennedy cites a specific example:

The alt attribute you write for an image on Site A can be vastly different than the alt attribute for the same image on Site B. Why? Each site’s content is vastly different. This stumps a lot of talented web workers.

Accessibility improvements are often implemented under the surface of the application and Kennedy says that the goal is to keep them invisible.

When web accessibility is done right, it’s undetectable. So it’s not something designers, developers or users can see to make a note of for future inspiration. You have to dig deeper to find the beauty in web accessibility. But trust me, it’s there.

Kennedy and other WordPress accessibility contributors are working together to improve the application along these lines with an initial focus on modernizing their testing tools.

WordPress Contributors Are Collaborating With the Drupal Accessibility Team To Automate Testing

The WordPress Accessibility team is moving toward automating testing in order to improve its efficiency. Kennedy hopes that automated testing will bring accessibility improvements to a new level, as well as help to educate other types of contributors, i.e. designers and developers:

Its biggest benefits include helping us find simple errors, like missing form labels or missing alt attributes, and alerting us to potentially large trouble spots within code that may need more manual testing. Automated accessibility testing also shows many developers that accessibility is as much a code quality issue as it is a design and user interface challenge.

Pursuant to that goal, Kennedy contacted Jesse Beach from the Drupal project. She is a contributor to QuailJS, a jQuery plugin for checking content against accessibility guidelines. The Drupal Accessibility team already has this in the bag and the application is well-known for its attention to web accessibility guidelines. Their input has been invaluable to WordPress contributors, who may opt for incorporating QuailJS or a similar tool as part of their testing suite, depending on what fits.

Some of WordPress’ accessibility team members have joined in the Drupal Accessibility Group’s Skype chat and a few Drupal members have jumped in on the WordPress IRC chats. They’re brainstorming new ways to keep the conversation going for improving both projects.

What exactly do WordPress and Drupal have to gain by collaborating on accessibility? Kennedy has a few thoughts:

At a broad level? More accessible, open software meaning that more people can create content on the web. Deeper than that? More efficient processes around managing accessibility in large, open software projects.

Potentially, a unified way to approach new accessibility web standards, meaning if both Drupal and WordPress adopt a standard quickly, it might help push browser makers to move sooner.

Modernizing the testing tools that WordPress accessibility contributors have at their disposal is the first step towards getting on the same page.

Making WordPress Accessibility More Approachable for New Contributors

The accessibility team remains rather small, with just a handful of regular contributors. But you don’t have to be an established accessibility wizard to join the team. Kennedy offers a new way to look at the field.

“Web accessibility crosses all disciplines and touches every aspect of the web. But many people don’t realize they already have what it takes to make a project accessible. We have to embrace that.

“Good web accessibility comes down to making informed decisions, making sure the people involved have an awareness of accessibility and paying attention to the smallest of details throughout,” he said.

“Notice I didn’t mention anything about design, specific accessibility standards or coding. It usually starts with asking the question, ‘How’s this really going to work?’ Anyone can help us do that.”

If you’re interested in learning more, join the WordPress accessibility team at make.wordpress.org/accessibility. You’ll find a group of contributors who are passionate about making the web a better place.


3 responses to “WordPress Contributors Move Toward Automating Accessibility Testing”

  1. This is welcome news. Accessibility is too often overlooked and it is something that should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds when they work with Open Source. WordPress’ market share makes it and its community a major influencer and thought leader where moving the web forward is concerned and if we collectively decide to make Accessibility priority #1 then the rest of the web will follow suit.

    This move also falls nicely in line with the recent legislation of accessibility standards as a requirement in many European countries. We are moving towards a time when accessibility is a requirement and the sooner we can get in front of that the better.

  2. I’ll admit, accessibility is something I don’t know much about and is generally on the back of my mind. When I think of accessibility, I think of all the extra work required. If accessibility becomes a requirement, I think that may push me to learn more about it and strive to make accessible content. But man, all I think about is the extra work involved with everything.

    • The sentiment you are expressing here is both the reason why accessibility is the unwanted step-child of web development and why governments all over the world are now legislating it as a must-have feature. Ask anyone who has never done accessibility and they’ll tell you it’s because they think it’s a lot of work and complicated. Ask anyone who works with accessibility and they’ll tell you this is a myth.

      Here’s the thing: If you build accessibility in from the ground up it is not a lot of work at all. It is just part of your baseline framework. If on the other hand you try to cobble it on afterwards it can be a royal pain. It’s all about how you approach it.

      Regardless, even if it was complicated and expensive (it’s neither) we simply cannot continue ignoring accessibility any longer. It is morally wrong and now also legally wrong in many countries. The only right thing to do is learn it, embrace it, make it part of the process. Soon it will just be another web standards thing you do by default.


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