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.
When it came to my own blog blacktelephone.com 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 WordPress.com Theme Directory.
When I worked on aplasticbrain.com 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.
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.
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!