The future of accessibility in WordPress

For over a year, we’ve reported on the progress of major changes coming to WordPress in the form of the Gutenberg editor and WordPress 5.0. We’ve known for awhile that the 5.0 release is running behind schedule — after all, last December Matt Mullenweg targeted April as the release date for WordPress 5.0 and it’s still at least a few weeks away — but we’re starting to see some of the behind-the-scenes issues delaying its release come to the surface. On October 9, Rian Rietveld, the team lead for the WordPress accessibility team resigned from her post. In a blog post detailing her decision, she brought to light several issues she’s faced with the development of Gutenberg. What does her decision mean for its future?

Gutenberg faces accessibility problems

At WordCamp US 2017, accessibility was a major talking point. Among others, Rian Rietveld herself gave a presentation on accessibility guidelines, and she highlighted several features coming to Gutenberg to help users with accessibility limitations. The future for WordPress users requiring accessibility accommodations seemed bright, and it seemed like accessibility would be a major point of emphasis moving forward. To that note, we published three tips on accessibility here, discussing visually accessible content, accommodations for colorblind users, and image and link text accessibility tips. Like Rietveld, we believe that websites should be accessible to all users, and we want to make sure our readers knew how to make their sites accessible to everyone as well.

Part of Rietveld’s work with WordPress was taking things a step further and ensuring the WordPress backend is accessibility-friendly as well, and this is where her resignation has a major impact. She highlighted four major challenges facing the WordPress accessibility team working with Gutenberg:

  • The accessibility team didn’t have a developer skilled with React, the library used to build Gutenberg
  • The team was unable to find a skilled React developer who had experience in the accessibility community
  • Accessibility fixes implemented into Gutenberg were later overwritten when changes were made to the codebase
  • New functionality was not keyboard tested

Overall, it seems that there was a complete disconnect between the Gutenberg developer team and the accessibility team, and this led to Rietveld’s decision to resign. Rietveld wrote, “[Testing] results indicated so many accessibility issues that most testers refused to look at Gutenberg again.” Because accessibility was not integrated from the beginning, accessibility testers found a myriad of issues.

What does this mean for Gutenberg?

WordPress released a Gutenberg preview in WordPress 4.9.8, but it will be built into the WordPress core in 5.0. This means that right now, a plugin is required to install Gutenberg, but it will be the default option when WordPress 5.0 is released, presumably later this year.

It is possible that WordPress will delay the 5.0 launch until these issues are fixed, but because there are so many problems, this is unlikely. Further, many in the WordPress community speculate that WordPress 5.0 is possibly being rushed so that it can release before WordCamp US 2018, taking place December 7-9 in Nashville. Because Matt Mullenweg emphasized a 2018 release for Gutenberg last year at WordCamp US 2017, this is a distinct possibility. He faced numerous questions about Gutenberg last year, and it would make sense that he doesn’t want to see the WordPress 5.0 release drag out past this year’s WordCamp US conference, as it is the largest gathering of WordPressers around the world.

With this in mind, we recommend that WordPress users requiring screen readers, keyboard-only input methods, or other accessibility accommodations refrain from installing Gutenberg without first testing it thoroughly. In WordPress 4, simply refrain from installing the Gutenberg plugin or disable the plugin if you have installed it and are having issues with Gutenberg. When WordPress 5.0 releases, accessibility users will want to install the Classic Editor plugin to ensure you can continue editing without Gutenberg. For everyone else, Gutenberg offers an exciting new editing experience, but we can only hope that WordPress works hard in the coming months to help Gutenberg work well for everyone.

If you’re considering installing the Gutenberg preview, also remember to ensure your theme is compatible with Gutenberg. If you’re using a page builder, you can check our page builder compatibility list to make sure Gutenberg is a good option for you.