When was the last time you tried navigating your WordPress site using only the keyboard? Chances are you never have, and if you do you are likely to have a sub-optimal experience at best. The alarming reality is only a handful of WordPress themes (and thus WordPress-powered sites) meet basic accessibility guidelines. This is not OK. I’m issuing a challenge to the WordPress community:
Accessibility should be a requirement for all WordPress themes.
WordPress accessibility should not be an option
WordPress currently powers more than 22% of the web and that number is growing by the day. With great power comes great responsibility. That responsibility includes providing solutions that anyone and everyone can use as well as being a thought-leader and trend setter for the larger web community.
Presently, thanks to the great work of the WordPress Accessibility Team, a theme developer can choose to add the accessibility-ready tag to her theme when it is submitted to the WordPress Theme Directory. If she chooses to do so the theme will undergo an accessibility test and any accessibility concerns will be addressed before the theme goes live.
My proposal is we change the accessibility-ready tag from an option to a requirement.
Here’s the thing: Accessibility is not an option. An inaccessible website is a site that discriminates against groups of people based on disabilities and other concerns. And the platform that powers 22% of the web cannot move forward while treating a right that many countries now mandates by law as an optional feature. It is both morally and legally wrong and sets an unacceptable precedence.
Presently the onus is on the site owner to ensure her site is accessible. This is unreasonable considering its importance and the nature of WordPress (and in particular WordPress.com) as an application with a low-to-no web skills entry point. A person who uses WordPress to host a website should not be required to know what accessibility is and why it matters any more than she should be required to know what browser prefixes or HTML5 shims are. In fact accessibility is not something the WordPress site owner should have to to think about or even be aware of. It should just be there by default in the same way that support for Closed Captioning is a standard feature on North American TV sets.
The Inaccessible Status Quo
If you visit the WordPress Theme Directory today you’ll find 2,513 themes. Of these only 13 are tagged accessibility-ready. That’s 0.5%. On WordPress.com the total number of accessibility ready themes is 3 out of 266 (1.1%). Granted the accessibility-ready tag was only introduced recently and there is a good chance there are older themes that meet these requirements, but the fact remains where accessibility is concerned WordPress themes are failing dismally.
What does this mean? If you are a web user who relies on keyboard navigation, voice commands, high-contrast displays, or a text-to-speech browser and you visit a WordPress-powered site you are likely going to have a bad user experience. Same goes for anyone with other accessibility concerns including color blindness, poor motor control, arthritis, the list goes on. Presently there is only a marginal chance the site you visit will be accessible, and that is most likely because the site owner has made a conscious and deliberate decision to make it that way because of her awareness of accessibility as an important issue.
The current situation also has serious legal ramifications. Web accessibility has been elevated to a rights and discrimination issue by municipalities and countries all over the world and legislation is forthcoming in many more places. These laws and regulations mandate accessibility and impose severe penalties on sites that do not meet accessibility guidelines. Because WordPress powers a significant portion of the web that means many WordPress site owners will be facing financial penalties and legal issues in the near future due to lack of accessibility support in their themes. And for most of these site owners this will come as a surprise because they were never made aware that WordPress themes by default are not accessible.
Accessibility is not an option: It’s a requirement
Why are there so few WordPress themes that meet basic accessibility standards? For the same reason that most websites don’t meet accessibility standards: Developers have long considered accessibility an add-on option, and an unimportant one at that. Nothing could be further from the truth:
Accessibility is a rights issue. An inaccessible website is a site that discriminates against groups of people based on disabilities and other accessibility concerns.
Shipping an inaccessible website is like saying “Here is some interesting content. If you can’t access it because of your disability too bad for you. I don’t care.” Imagine if a restaurant did that to a wheel chair user. Or a municipality refused to add audio signals to a pedestrian crossing because they considered it an inconvenient or expensive option. Web content is no different.
Accessibility on the web is neither costly nor time-consuming or complicated
Whenever the issue of web accessibility is brought up there is an immediate reaction from some web developers that accessibility is costly and/or time-consuming or complicated to implement. This is a myth. Yes, accessibility is costly if it is applied after the project is otherwise complete. But so is web standards, responsive web design, and anything else. Yes, accessibility is time consuming and complicated if you have never done it before. That’s not a reason to ignore it: It’s a reason to learn it.
Accessibility should be one of the first steps of your development process for any web project including the development of WordPress themes. That way it’s not costly, time consuming, or complicated: It is just standards-based web development.
And if you read the WordPress Accessibility Guidelines you’ll realize meeting them and getting the accessibility-ready tag approved is not hard. To get you started here are some tips:
- Use _s (Underscores) as your base for new WordPress themes and you’re 90% there. All you have to do is add a script like Superfish to make the main menu keyboard navigable and make some other subtle tweaks.
- Familiarize yourself with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
- Think of accessibility not just as an enhancement feature for disabled visitors but also a standard feature that allows search engines to index your content better and users to access your content using new and future non-standard devices like a voice controlled phone or car, web enabled glasses, smart watches, and so on.
- Embrace accessibility as one of the first requirements of your WordPress themes and web projects.
Accessibility is not a feature. It’s a standard. Let’s make it the WordPress theme standard.