Reminder: Accessibility can’t be solved automatically

June 9, 2020

Topics: Accessibility, WordPress.

The other day, Mike Gifford shared a post from Small Business Trends that talked about how free accessibility plugins cause problems for small business, in which my plug-in WP Accessibility was cited. In that message, he expressed that he was sorry to see my plug-in lumped in with other shady web site accessibility toolbars.

But, in all honesty, I’m OK with that.

WP Accessibility is definitely different from most of these other so-called accessibility toolbars, in that I’ve worked hard to try and convey awareness that the plug-in absolutely will not solve your accessibility problems. And in that sense, it really doesn’t belong grouped with some of the truly horrific free plugins you can find.

But in another sense, it absolutely does: it’s still a tool that people are using in a mistaken belief that they are fixing their accessibility problems, when what they really need to do is fix the root of the problem. No matter what I right, I can tell from the support requests I get that there is an expectation that the plug-in will fix their problems.

And some of the features are actually universally beneficial on a long-term or permanent basis. WP Accessibility offers support for the longdesc attribute, can fix some core WordPress problems relating to search forms, and can help you work with alt attributes in your site.

But other features are fragile or better solved in other ways. Focus states should be controlled in your theme. The use of ARIA landmark roles should come from your theme. Unnecessary title attributes should be removed from your content manually, rather than depending on possibly too aggressive parsing that WP Accessibility does. Skip links should come from your theme.

I’ve been thinking for some time that I need to divide WP Accessibility into two plugins: one that provides features & tools to help you with your site useful in all site, and a second that does all of the stopgap fixes that should really be repaired elsewhere – in the hopes that those stopgap fixes will eventually die.

But in the meantime, here’s your reminder: no plug-in, toolbar, or overlay is “fixing” your accessibility problems. They may be sticking a piece of used duct-tape over the gap, but the problem is still there. A tiny change to the underlying structure might break the so-called “fix”, or the fix may cause other, even bigger problems.

Here’s some further reading on the problem:

If, after reading those articles, you still want to use an overlay to solve your accessibility problems…well, good luck. It’s all you’ll have.

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5 Comments to “Reminder: Accessibility can’t be solved automatically”

  1. Thanks, Mike!

    One of the things we’ve found that is a tremendous limitation in making WordPress accessible is the inevitable truth that we can either allow flexible theming and provide hooks for people to create new interfaces, or we can reliably guarantee accessibility – but we can’t do both. No matter what happens with the core WordPress software, poor theme or plug-in development practices can tear that work down.

    We can encourage best practices, but have no way to enforce them.

  2. This is great Joe. Glad my note prompted this email. In Drupal we’ve been striving to build in accessibility best practices into Core, but just using Drupal isn’t going to make your site accessible. Just as with your plugin, it can make it easier, but it is “still a tool that [some] people are using in a mistaken belief that they are fixing their accessibility problems”. This is a multi-layered problem and designers, developers, and editors all have a role in ensuring that content meets WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines)’s POUR principles.

  3. Thanks, Mihai! I typed ‘hreef’ instead of ‘href’. 🙂

  4. Great article. I agree with you, I see this request on a weekly basis on websites where someone asks for a plugin, app, library that will fix their accessibility issues.

  5. I really appreciate your nuanced and experienced take on this. Very nicely done!