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!

Standards and Accessibility


The Broadway show Oklahoma! opened during WWII on March 31, 1943 and ran for 2,212 performances. It was Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s first collaboration and it was a smash hit. There were many film offers from the studios but Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted to wait until they had made as much money as they could on Broadway, and from traveling companies, and from foreign stage shows.

They began production on the movie version almost ten years later. It was the first movie shot in Todd-AO, a widescreen format to rival CinemaScope. Todd-AO was shot on 65mm negative and Oklahoma! was shot at 30 frames per second. 30 frames per second eliminated the subliminal flicker of 24 frames per second which was otherwise standard. Unless they were under or over cranking. Want to speed up a horse race like in National Velvet? Undercrank.

The Silver Screen

I started working in the movies in theatrical post production in Manhattan and transferred to a Hollywood local in 1979. My first Hollywood job was working on the UCLA film archives project in studio vaults and I remember finding picture elements from Oklahoma! People don’t track things when a project is done. There’s no staff left, production is too complex, and pieces get filed oddly. Archiving was not really a thing then. Film was regularly sent for destruction after silver recovery. They didn’t call it the silver screen for nothing.

Production Requirements

When it comes time to do post production on a movie the money is mostly all spent, but they do budget for post production because it’s a production requirement. When it comes time to “add accessibility” to a digital project the money is definitely all spent because it was never a production requirement.


Released in 1955, Oklahoma! was shot in Todd-AO and simultaneously in CinemaScope. It was released in Todd-AO in 70mm and CinemaScope in 35mm anamorphic format. Supporting two versions was necessary because there weren’t enough theaters set up for Todd-AO. Operability was a problem.

Film Standards

Competing standards for shooting formats also brought about different standards for motion picture film stock. For instance, Todd-AO used Kodak Standard (KS) perforations while CinemaScope used Cinema Scope (CS) perforations that we called foxholes because originally only 20th Century Fox made CinemaScope movies.

Thanks to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), today’s web standards have helped create an environment far less restrictive than competing film format and film stock standards. You couldn’t run foxhole stock on a machine set up for Kodak Standard, but you could do the reverse. This site best viewed in Chrome reminds me of this.

Slow Down

Shot in Arizona and at at MGM Studios in Culver City, California, where I later worked,  Oklahoma! was released 12 years after the stage play debuted. Though Rodgers and Hammerstein did delay making the movie the fact is that making great things requires time. This still holds true. Making great software takes time. Look at the time put into operating systems. WordPress is 13 years in the making. We’re still developing the web 25 years later.

In a time of minimum viable products and largely inaccessible frameworks I have to wonder, what’s the rush? If you are going to leave out a sizeable portion of people by not including accessibility up front I guess you don’t have to slow down, but really, why rush to release without first considering accessibility? I know that some projects are urgent. I regularly worked 13.5 hour days seven days a week in the studios so I understand urgency. I’m just wondering what the rush is when you’re leaving out so many people.


My mission, by the way, in listening to this soundtrack is to make an effort to introduce Siobhan to more music. She likes show tunes so I’m trying Oklahoma! She and I watched the Todd-AO version a few times and now I have the album on her iPad. Great songs. Next I have to load the icon into her speech generating devices. Those speech generating devices have no standards at all. We have to reprogram her entire environment from scratch each time she moves to a new device. There are no open source Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) projects that include software and hardware.

Get It Right

So these are my thoughts as I listen to the songs from the Oklahoma! movie. My time spent working on movies and my time spent working on the web, a whole lifetime of rich experiences, informs everything I do. Let’s make sure that everyone has access to information and experiences so everyone can live a rich life. Good things take time and if you take a slightly slower approach and use open web standards you’ll find that you can surely make your projects perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Get it right the first time.


Siobhan used the icon for Oklahoma! and I helped her locate the soundtrack in the impenetrable wasteland that iOS Music has become. But that sounds like a topic for another post.