WordPress, Accessibility, and Gutenberg

October 9, 2018

Topics: Accessibility, WordPress.

Rian Rietveld resigned from the leadership of the WordPress Accessibility team today.

When I first started talking about Gutenberg, I touted it as a future for creating a new, more accessible experience for both authors and website visitors. I was very optimistic – nervous, and aware that this was going to be a challenge, but optimistic.

Part of what I hoped for has happened – but far from all of it. There are good things about Gutenberg. Monitoring the hierarchy of headings in your content is great. The internal color contrast testing is valuable. But there are many more important things that have not been addressed.

I’ve hardly had any involvement in the last year. The development of Gutenberg was radically different from the rest of WordPress. It’s been an exclusionary process from the beginning – requiring people to learn new tools, new ways of working with WordPress, and new languages just to have the opportunity to be involved. It’s been hugely destructive for people who have already committed a lot of time (at their own expense) to the current system. This has prevented me from being able to participate. (Along with a number of unrelated issues that have affected my availability.)

Obviously I could have dedicated more time to the project in order to keep working on this. But what would I sacrifice in order to do that? Nobody pays me to participate on WordPress – adding more time just to have the possibility of contributing is an ineffective use of my time.

Leadership on Gutenberg

The leadership within the Gutenberg project has not taken seriously the scope of accessibility problems in Gutenberg.

I do not want to diminish the dedication to accessibility issues at some levels. The dedication to producing accessible content is still very high. But I’m not seeing dedication to developing an accessible authoring tool. It’s as if there’s no awareness of the needs of authors with disabilities; only consumers.

When Matt Mullenweg posts the comment “We’ve gotten feedback it’s already surpassed the classic editor in many ways.“, I have to seriously question where that information is coming from.

The classic editor is certainly not perfect – which makes it that much worse that falling back to an un-maintained classic editor is the only realistic option for people with disabilities on WordPress. Previously, there was some hope that it would improve – that hope is now gone. However, it is generally usable, even if some options are problematic.

Gutenberg has the potential to do amazing things. In its current iteration, however, it will only do those things if you’re able to dedicate the time it takes to learn how to use it with the tools you have available.

I still believe that there are people dedicated to making Gutenberg accessible. As much of a surprise the selection of lonelyvegan (tofumatt) as the accessibility lead for WordPress 5.0 was to the accessibility team, I sincerely believe that he wants accessibility for the project, and I’ll do everything in my ability to help with that.

Is November 19th, 2018 a realistic release date?

If the time frame for the release of 5.0 is held to, it is almost a guarantee that the first release of Gutenberg in WordPress will not be accessible. I do not believe that it is possible to resolve the major accessibility issues with Gutenberg in that time frame.

The development team on Gutenberg has done tremendous work under a great deal of pressure. They’ve handled many accessibility issues. But for anybody to believe that this project is within 6 weeks of release is absurd.

If you depend on WordPress to run your site and require the use of any kind of assistive technology, I can only recommend that you install and activate the Classic Editor plug-in prior to updating to Gutenberg. You will be able to use Gutenberg eventually; but you will need to spend considerable effort learning how to work within it.

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5 Comments to “WordPress, Accessibility, and Gutenberg”

  1. Is it just me, or does Mullenweg’s comment make him sound like a certain American president?

  2. Tofumatt is not an expert in accessibility, so this doesn’t fully surprise me. I think it stems from the general leadership failure in Gutenberg that doesn’t recognize just how severe the problems in Gutenberg’s accessibility are. If you look at the micro-interactions within Gutenberg, most of the individual interactions are accessible. But the constant context changes and unpredictable navigation flow make the overall use of the product incredibly confusing, and this is a critical issue. The trees are beautiful. The forest is impassable.

    I’ll give some thought to my response to the questions about what to do next; I’ll probably answer that as a follow-up post, rather than a comment. I have many thoughts that lead in many different directions, but I need to give some time to expressing them effectively.

  3. Tofumatt is openly acknowledging that 5.0 is likely to ship with accessibility issues:

    “I want to set the clear expectation that there may be accessibility issues we discover (or possibly know about) that we are not able to fix before WordPress 5.0 is released”

    https://github.com/WordPress/gutenberg/issues/10318#issuecomment-427401418

    That was a suprise to me. I expected the accessibility lead to be arguing to fix all accessibility issues before shipping, rather than setting up the compromise. It certainly seems like shipping on time is the priority…

  4. I am also interested in this question

  5. Any ideas what those of us WordPress authors and administrators can or should do? Should we all find another CMS (Content Management System), or is there any hope for WordPress to get back on track with accessibility moving forward?