Free Accessible WordPress Themes


I remember that only five years ago there were very few accessible WordPress themes. There were fewer than a handful in the WordPress Theme Directory. This was shocking to many people, some of whom were asking me where the free accessible themes were. There must be some, they said.

Deploying WordPress in education was difficult. We rolled our own accessible themes but took a beating from site owners who were used to using static website designs created by graduate students (who then left without giving anyone the password). Having a science site design with a black background with the rings of Saturn and yellow slanty text was very important compared to the needs of people who just wanted to get the information.

Finding that there were limits on the number of themes they could deploy within the system users naturally rebelled. With apologies to Cole Porter: Oh, give me themes, lots of themes, under starry skies above, don’t fence me in. “Cause whatever it is, I’m against it!” sang Groucho Marx. As for the way the university web team felt, the words of the proud and very useful line engine Gordon of Thomas the Tank Engine come to mind, “Oh, the indignity.” I’ll just throw in a reference to Cicero’s “fluctus in simpulo exitare” —to raise a tempest in a ladle— and that will suffice to cover my twenty-one year career in education.

Content First

When it came to my own blog about disability rights, only one theme was accessible and met my needs, and I don’t remember if it was even in the WordPress Theme Repository. I think not, I seem to remember downloading the files and installing them via FTP. I generally tend to favor themes that put the content first and keep the needs of the users in mind. Blaskan, by Per Sandström was released in the spring of 2012 and it met my needs and is now in the Theme Directory.

When I worked on for Anne Forrest in the 2014 Knowbility Open Accessibility Internet Rally (OpenAIR) it was all about Anne’s needs as a traumatic brain injury survivor balanced with the needs of those using the site, some of whom were also traumatic brain injury survivors. This resulted in a very spare design using a color scheme that wouldn’t exacerbate cognitive dissonance. I can see some accessibility issues have cropped up but I’m glad to see that Anne is still using the theme.

Accessibility Team

In the autumn of 2012 I decided to devote some time to working on WordPress. I’d been using or administering WordPress since 2005 and I felt I had to give back. For anyone who has not worked on open source software I highly encourage it. I’ve met so many smart dedicated people during the time I’ve worked on WordPress and I learned so much. It was a very valuable experience and I thank the Accessibility Team for counting me as a member. If you are curious about helping with WordPress accessibility then the best place to start is Make WordPress Accessible.

Accessible Themes

Clearly we needed to encourage the creation of free accessible WordPress themes but first there was work to do. This took a while, as things can with only an hourly weekly meeting and day jobs and families needing attention. First we had to define what was meant by accessibility in terms of a theme and this took a while. It took some thought and discussion to create the tag to affix to accessible themes.

The thing about a theme is that the first use of the theme by an untrained administrator has the potential to make it less accessible. I once did extensive one-on-one training for a colleague for whom the university web team had built an accessible WordPress university staff news site only to find years later that she wasn’t writing alt-text for any of the hundreds of photos she had uploaded.

A theme can only be as accessible as it is finally approved and uploaded to the WordPress Theme Directory so the tag accessibility-ready was devised. The team worked to create a well defined list of accessibility specifications for theme creators and for theme checkers. At WordCamps and online the Accessibility Team did training for theme checkers. At last the process was in place but it did need some ironing out.


While this process was happening I began speaking at WordCamps about the need for accessible themes and explaining what that meant in as simple a fashion as possible. Instead of waiting for the community to respond I thought I’d start things rolling by asking people in the accessibility community if they would contribute a theme and that would lead by example. I called the project Cities as the idea was to encourage people in various cities where accessibility meetups existed to support the project.

I was very pleased when several people responded and said they’d build themes. The first theme was built by Anna Belle Leiserson, A11 Y’all, representing Nashville, and it took months to get it through the process and make it into the WordPress Theme Directory with the accessibility-ready tag. My apologies to Anna Belle for patiently waiting, but that theme really helped point out the bottlenecks in the process.

Though the Cities project only yielded a few themes the publicity from it went far and wide. Only this year at the 2017 CSUN conference I was asked how the project was going. So it had an effect on the community.


Today if you do a search for accessibility-ready tagged themes in the WordPress Theme Directory the number is one hundred and thirty four including this year’s theme from WordPress, Twenty Seventeen. I switched to it a few days ago and was so proud to see the accessibility-ready tag.

I look forward to experimenting with Twenty Seventeen. For instance, I really need to understand the logic of the hero picture. Support forums are full of comments about the issue. I love the WordPress community! Congratulations to the WordPress Accessibility Team and much thanks to the WordPress community for continuing to make great progress on accessibility. Oh, and if you have an idea for an accessibility-ready theme you’d like to build, it can’t hurt to have one hundred and thirty five!


Brass Ring

A few weeks ago Joe Devon and I discussed accessibility hackathons. Last week on Twitter I asked “Has anyone run an #accessibility #hackathon or have links to information about running one?” I got some great replies. Dennis Lembrée and Jennifer Sutton both suggested I write a post about it.

Sometimes my life is exactly like riding a merry-go-round and grabbing for a brass ring. The time needed to write a post comes around and around but something usually prevents me from doing it, like work or family responsibilities. Or getting ready for my presentations at the International Technology and Persons With Disabilities Conference in a few weeks.

Community Reports

Cameron Cundiff said “for an accessibility hackathon, maybe get devs to contribute to existing open source tools. Less barrier to entry.” I can certainly get behind that, there are some WordPress accessibility tickets to clean up.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Austin Seraphin helped organize #Hack4Access: Philly’s celebration of the National Day of Civic Hacking. I especially like their Rowhome Accessibility Checklist category. Christopher Wink added a link to the list of projects done during the Hack 4 Access 2014 event. Quite impressive and kudos to Philadephia, much accessibility activity there.

Los Angeles, California

Amanda Rush suggested I talk with Sina Bahram, and he referred me to an event I know well, Project: Possibility, a “nonprofit organization dedicated to creating open source software that benefits the disabilities community, and educating students on accessibility and universal design concepts.” Sean Goggin, who runs the whole shebang remembered: “Yep! Joseph even served as a judge at one of the campus SS12 Hack-a-thons.” I remember that it was a very enthusiastic group at the University of Southern California.

Austin, Texas

Katherine Mancuso remembered that the Knowbility Open Accessibility Internet Rally used to be a hackathon. This year I participated in OpenAIR as an accessibility mentor to a team building a WordPress site for A Plastic Brain, a non-profit run by Anne Forrest for survivors of traumatic brain injury (TBI). The competition will be over soon and my team is in first place. Happy to get recognition for TBI and for the work being done by Anne. Sharon Rush of Knowbility said: “Yes was 8 hour hackathon in ’98, evolved to design competition.”

Montreal, Canada

Arthur Rigaud of marvelous Montreal reminded me that there was an accessibility hackathon there in 2012 specifically on videos with Denis Boudreau and Christian Aubrey. Also in 2012 they had a Drupal Accessibility Sprint with Evolving Web, webchick, Jesse Beach, Matt Parker, Mike Gifford, and Everett Zufelt. Montreal is a hotbed of accessibility activity, even if it is around zero degrees Fahrenheit there right now.

Sydney, Australia

Monica O. shared a link to the 2014 Enabled by Design-athon held at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia. I especially like the word “design” in the title. As the site says: “The event brings together people from a diverse range of backgrounds and experience (including designers, makers, health and social care professionals, engineers and people with disabilities) to work together in teams.”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Jeffrey Bigham clued me in to ATHack at MIT which is happening now. William Li and Dhruv Jain are running the event. According to the site: “The goal of ATHack is to bring awareness to the important field of developing assistive technologies. We pair teams of students with clients in the Boston/Cambridge community who live with a disability. Each client has a problem in mind which they face because of their disability. Over the course of the hackathon, students brainstorm, design, and create prototype solutions for their client.” I like this approach very much.


Each of these events have devised multiple solutions for challenges facing people with disabilities. Especially notable is the Sydney event where people from multiple disciplines participated and the MIT event that is pairing people with disabilities with team members well in advance of the conclusion of their projects. Thanks to all who took the time to contribute to this list of events.