Themes are not web sites

August 13, 2016

Topics: Accessibility, WordPress.

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Periodically, somebody asks me whether the themes reviewed for accessibility at WordPress.org are compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The simple answer is no; but the real answer is a little more complicated.

The only real answer I can give is that the question isn’t applicable to themes. The clue is in the name of the guidelines themselves: they are Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. They aren’t guidelines that cover only navigation, design, and structure: they cover content and the methods used to access that content. Themes are not content; they’re just a framework where you can add your content in order to create a web site.

Because a theme is not a web site, there’s no meaningful way that I can call these themes compliant. If I’m assessing a theme, I don’t know what you’re going to do with it. I don’t know what you’re going to add to the theme. I can’t possibly know how you’re going to change the theme, by creating a child theme or modifying it through plug-ins – and any changes can result in great or terrible accessibility. Will you add alternative text to your images or captions to your videos. These key elements aren’t part of the theme; so how could I say that the theme is accessible?

WordPress and Accessible Sites

Can you create accessible web sites with WordPress? Yes, of course. But you can also create accessibility nightmares. The fact that you can use WordPress to create accessible web sites is absolutely a credit to WordPress – that’s not true of every content management system! But the idea that you can create a system that’s powerful and flexible that guarantees an accessible end product is many grand leaps in the future, if it is possible at all.

The question that I think WordPress developers should be asking themselves now is whether WordPress encourages the creation of accessible web sites. Right now, I think the answer is still no. When you know what you’re doing, it isn’t difficult to create accessible content in WordPress – but it doesn’t actually drive you in that direction.

Themes shape everything about whether the overall framework of your site will be accessible, but have little impact, generally speaking, on the content authoring experience. Authoring content is one of the key characteristics of the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines. A large portion of those guidelines are about making sure it is possible to use a system for publishing content; but they also govern promoting and encouraging the creation of accessible content.

Some questions we need to address for the future of accessibility in WordPress include:

  • Is it easy to add and manage closed captioning on videos?
  • How can authors add transcripts for their videos?
  • How well is the importance of alternative text promoted? Are authors encouraged to add these alternatives?
  • How can authors add tabular data and charts without causing accessibility problems?

If you’re interested in the topic of ATAG and WordPress, I’m giving a presentation on this subject at the this November in Westminster, Colorado.

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