Let’s make accessibility the next big thing

It was during the inaugural WordCamp Europe that I first met Rian. It was my first WordCamp ever, as for many others. I met Rian on Contributors Day in the accessibility track, which was also my first contact with how WordPress faces accessibility. Yes, I was aware of various accessibility issues and how people with disabilities use the web, but that was the point, that first Contributors day of mine, when I realised how important this work is.

Since then I followed Rian and the efforts of the entire WordPress accessibility team. Their job is the important one of not only improving accessibility in our WordPress world but building awareness for it too. They work hard every day to make WordPress, its plugins and themes accessible to everyone, yet, we can be unaware of that. This is a story about WordPress and its accessibility team.

Contributors day of the first WordCamp Europe in 2013 – Photo by Florian Ziegler

The Web has evolved over the years. If you take a look at the period of past ten years, you will see that we made significant progress. From designing websites using tables to web standards, which focused on separating content from the presentational layer. Then in May of 2010, Ethan Marcotte wrote an article about Responsive Web Design, paving the foundation for the immense growth in getting content from our mobile phones.

So, every few years there is some breakthrough in technologies that we use in designing websites, and this is also the time to become more aware of how people use the web. But for many years we didn’t notice people with disabilities and problems they’re having accessing information on the web.

In its essence web is an open and free space. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of World Wide Web, says that “The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”. And WordPress, in its mission clearly states that it wants to “democratise publishing”, yet, it has taken us, designers and developers, years to make a breakthrough in acknowledging—and more importantly—doing something regarding accessibility.

Luckily, today, accessibility (or “a11y” for short) gets more and more attention every year. And since WordPress now powers 27% of the internet, it is more important than ever that it stays accessible. And it does a great job. In its core, WordPress today is one of the most accessible pieces of software on the planet. Its themes? Not so much. But we are getting there.

Breakthrough in accessibility is possible because of the people like Rian Rietveld, Morten Rand–Hendriksen, Andrea Fercia, Joe Dolson, and Sami Keijonen. And they are not the only ones. If you go to Make WordPress Accessible, you will see a lot happening in their group.

Accessibility is not hard

“For most of the people a11y is an ‘added feature'” – says Morten.

At WordCamp Europe 2016 Morten gave a talk about Empathy and Acceptance in Design and Community – Photo by Vladimir Petkov

“When I talk to people about accessibility, the push back is often that it is too hard or too expensive. This is a bit of a myth. Accessibility, built into the core of the project, doesn’t have to be hard or expensive. But if we believe it to be, and introduce it into a project as an obstruction rather than an asset, it will be.”

And it’s true. When we think about accessibility, we often think how hard it is to implement. But it was the same with responsive web design, remember? And we overcame the problems there. Rian says that “accessibility is the next responsive” and continues:

“Someday there will be a point on which search engines decide that accessible websites rank higher like they did for responsive websites. And only if that happens a lot more money will be available for the education of developers and designers and also for research and improvement of accessibility of current sites.”

But we are not there just yet.

Rian got interested in a11y back in 2009 when the Dutch government decided to make its websites accessible. It was an eye opener for her, as she realised how some people use the web differently and how they struggle to use it. “They got my respect and empathy” – she says.

Andrea’s path was similar. Living in Italy, his government approved the new law regarding website accessibility in 2004, after which he became more involved in coding. With a degree in Political Sciences, I can only imagine how he felt.

On the other hand, Morten has been surrounded by people with difficulties his whole life, as his parents owned a rehabilitation hospital for brain and spinal injuries. As he puts it – “Accessibility is something I always cared about.” Similar to Morten is Joe’s story.

“I’d grown up in a family where disability issues were prominent, as my mother was the executive director of a program providing arts programs for people with disabilities and promoting art by people with disabilities, so I had some knowledge about disabilities and accommodation. Using this knowledge, I set out to learn everything I could about web accessibility and assistive technology.”

A11y makes WordPress better

Today, accessibility team is well recognised and respected by other teams, but that was not always the case. Rian recalls that time – “When I first attended the accessibility team I found it hard to join in. There was a mood of negativity and anger in the team and one of ignorance from the other teams.”

Rian Rietveld talks about accessibility at WordCamp Europe 2016 in Vienna. – Photo by Mark Smallman

Accessibility was left behind for things like internationalisation, mobile and responsive, which was understandable at that point. That’s when Morten wrote an article arguing all WordPress.org themes should be accessible by requirement. Naturally, the article sparked a lot of discussion, but progress was made. A year later, 79 themes on the official theme repository were accessible.

Themes are tested for accessibility thanks to a method and set of guidelines proposed by Joe in September of 2012. “It took over a year to define the guidelines and system sufficiently to launch the program, but there are currently 126 themes in the WordPress theme directory that have been reviewed for accessibility, and I’m very proud of that accomplishment.”

Thanks to these guidelines, today it’s easier for people to get involved with both building themes that are accessible, as well as reviewing them. One of those people is Sami.

“I started building accessible-ready themes and sites. From there I slowly started following a11y channel in Slack and participated in weekly meetings. Mostly as a silent member. And now I help to review accessibility-ready themes.”

They all agree on one thing, though – it’s easier today to talk about accessibility than it was ever before. Andrea explains:

“Awareness is growing. People needs will be the same in the future, so accessibility is going to stay. Assistive technologies will improve in ways we can’t even imagine today. Thinking of voice assistants or sight assistants, for example. But as long as devices will have an interface, those interfaces will need to be accessible. And developing accessible applications and interfaces is a developer’s responsibility, now and in the future.”

The WordPress Accessibility Team at WordCamp Europe 2016 in Vienna. From left to Right: Joe Dolson, Andrea Fercia, Rian Rietveld, Graham Armfield, Mike Little, and Morten Rand-Hendriksen

It is our duty to care about our users

Saying that developing accessible applications and interfaces is a developer’s responsibility may sound harsh to some people. But being a designer or developer nowadays, really means that we have a great responsibility on us. That means we should change our development process.

If we add accessibility at the end, the costs will be higher and it won’t work so well. On the other hand, if we integrate it into our development routine – we are doing the right thing. This can be liberating too, Andrea describes to me, as he talks about when he started to understand that he can make a difference.

“After a while, I started understanding that, as coders and developers, we can make a difference with our day by day job and help everyone to access information and services that could be inaccessible otherwise. I think this new feeling, that we can really help people, changed everything for me. It was, and it still is, like putting some higher level of ethics in my job.”

Getting to information is the key

A huge step forward making an accessible web is government’s decision to make all public websites accessible by the requirement. Scandinavian countries, Norway especially, have gone far away, but the situation is getting better elsewhere too.

“All around the world governments are taking action to make accessibility a right rather than a privilege. The argument is if you build something that is not accessible, you are actively excluding groups of people. That is a moral argument, and it is accurate, but when we approach it like this, developers become defensive – nobody wants to be told they are doing something wrong, especially if they think they are just omitting an annoying requirement. So while the moral argument is sound, I like to approach the issue from a different angle: Accessibility is one of if not the core premise of the web.”

Talking about accessibility today is like talking about web standards or responsive design years ago. Arguments then, were like arguments today, but in its heart – we should talk about what the web really is and why it’s important – it’s all about information.

“The web was built to make information accessible. And as technology and the web evolves, many of the things we take for granted – that people use screens, that they interact with single-point inputs, that they consume content from one source at a time – will change. And when they do, the level of accessibility you built into your solution will suddenly matter more than you think. Soon people will expect to be able to talk to websites and have them talk back. This requires accessibility. Right now people are stripping content out of websites and consuming it elsewhere. This requires proper markup and accessible content management. The future requires accessibility. If you want your creations to live on, they need to be accessible first, fancy second.”

What lies ahead

We (designers and developers) are the ones who can shape the web, to make it truly as open as his inventor, Sir Tim Berners-Lee wanted it. We have come a long way, but a road ahead is a bumpy one still. What will bring tomorrow we can’t know, but if you look at our own yard, what WordPress is and what WordCamps are—inclusive to everyone—the future might seem brighter. There are still challenges, though, says Joe when talking to me.

“There are two major directions that accessibility needs to continue to develop: solving complex interface problems so that everybody can have an intuitive interface, regardless of their method of using the web, and increasing education on accessibility, so that developers are already aware of the basic needs of users with disabilities when they enter the job market.”

One of the accessibility talks at WordCamp Europe 2016 in Vienna, was that of Graham Armfield that showed Assistive Technology Demo – Photo by Jonas Andrijauskas

When I talk with Rian, Morten, Joe, Andrea, Sami, and others, I don’t see only people that work hard to make WordPress’s ecosystem more open, but I see their passion as well. And this is something we should take into consideration when thinking about what will we make out of our next project.

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