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Episode #130: Accessible WordPress Themes: What to Know

Accessible WordPress themes.Many web designers and developers think using an accessibility-ready WordPress theme means a website will be accessible. But many themes have accessibility issues, and there is more to building an accessible website than using an accessible theme.


Show Notes

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In this episode of Design Domination, I’m getting into why accessible WordPress themes do not mean a website is accessible.

I decided to do a podcast on this because many web designers and developers who get into accessibility think that using an accessibility-ready WordPress theme means the website will be accessible.

I also get asked quite a bit which accessibility-ready themes I recommend and which WordPress themes are truly accessible.

So I want to address this common misconception and this question.

Why Use an Accessible WordPress Theme

First off, I want to explain why it’s good to start with an accessible WordPress theme. The theme is the underlying structure of a website. It also controls a lot of the functionality such as the navigation menu, blog and search.

When that functionality is not accessible, anyone who uses assistive technology such as a screen reader or keyboard—as opposed to a mouse—may not be able to get around the website.

That could potentially be about 20% of website visitors. That could include people with blindness or low vision using a screen reader or braille reader. It could be individuals with a cognitive disability such as dylsexia using a screen reader. It could be individuals with a motor disability such as from a broken arm or a stroke. They may be using the keyboard because they cannot use or control a mouse.

The point is that not everyone who visits a website uses a mouse. So when functionality and interactive items on a website are not accessible, then these individuals are unable to get around the website, use the navigation, perform a search, or select and activate hyperlinks. I say “select” because they may be tapping or using the keyboard to do so, but not clicking with a mouse.

Accessibility of Accessible WordPress Themes

Even if you use an accessible WordPress theme—whether it’s in the WordPress repository or not—it probably isn’t 100% accessible. Some of them are not even close. Some have several WCAG violations, some of which may or may not be accessibility barriers that prevent someone from doing something on the website.

These are often not issues that you can detect with an automated checker. Some things must be manually checked.

Accessible Website Content

Whether or not you were to use the most accessible WordPress theme out there, there is another point to consider.

I mentioned that a common misconception many web designers have about accessible WordPress themes is that they think it means the theme will make the website accessible.

But themes only affect the structure of a site—the setup of the page templates, the navigation, the blog functionality, the search functionality, like I mentioned.

Accessible Design

Themes do not affect any design changes you may make.

Themes do not ensure good contrast. I’ve seen many themes that do not use sufficient contrast even in their default settings. Most web designers and developers are going to change the colors from the existing ones anyway.

But if you don’t know about contrast requirements or use of color guidelines and don’t check for these issues, then that will present accessibility issues for sighted users. That would be individuals with low vision or color blindness, for example.

Accessible Page Content

Accessibility-ready themes don’t take into consideration the page content. When you change a website over to an accessibility-ready theme or create a new site with one, it won’t affect the page content at all.

For example:

An accessible theme can’t put headings in the right order on the page.

It can’t retag headings that should be body text as body text. It can’t tag body text that should be a list as a list.

It can’t fix hyperlink text.

It can’t add captions to videos. It can’t add transcripts where there is audio and video.

It can’t check that images have Alt-text—and the proper Alt-text at that. On the other hand, it can’t check that images that shouldn’t have Alt-text have null Alt-text.

It can’t check that the tab order and reading order are correct.

It can’t prevent your client from making inaccessible edits to the page content.

Accessible Documents

Accessibility-ready themes can’t check whether or not downloadable documents are accessible. These could be PDFs, Word documents or PowerPoint files, for example.

If a website needs to be accessible, then so do the documents. But documents on the site are often overlooked.

Accessible Functionality

Accessibility-ready themes can’t do anything for the functionality you add to a site. They can’t fix any functionality you added with a plugin.

They can’t fix inaccessible forms you added with a plugin.

They can’t prevent you or anyone else from adding a plugin with inaccessible functionality to the website.

They can’t make something you might manually code accessible.

Accessible Updates

Themes can get updated by their developers at any time and render something that was accessible not accessible. The reverse is true as well, that something that was an accessibility issue before got taken care of.

The thing to remember is that accessibility is not set it and forget it. Accessibility is an ongoing process.

As anything gets updated, the degree of accessibility may change.

So accessibility-ready themes are a good foundation, a good start. But now you know there are many other aspects to consider to make a site accessible.

Which Themes to Use for Accessibility

Now, back to the question I get asked a lot and that is which themes are accessible, which do I recommend.

For what it’s worth, let me preface my answer with this…

I know how to code HTML. I am not a PHP developer, by any means, but I know what I can get away with copying and pasting and modifying or what I should stay away from.

Having said that, I prefer Underscores, because I like to be able to have control over the page templates and not have to undo something another web developer did. I also don’t want to have to update a theme, take time to recheck it for potential accessibility issues or find that something is no longer accessible.

I’ve notified several developers about accessibility issues in some themes I used in the past (even some popular themes). It just got to a point where it was easier for me to code things myself than it was to continue trying to hack an existing theme to fix the issues.

Astra, GeneratePress and Genesis Framework are other themes I’ve used.

Another accessible WordPress theme is Icelander, which is a paid theme. I haven’t used it, but I’ve checked out the live demo. As of today, I noticed that something seems to have changed in the setup of the navigation.

That leads me to make this important point: Like any WordPress theme, an accessible theme could change at any point in time. I could say, “This theme is pretty accessible,” and the next day it could be a different story.

Whichever themes you’re considering, it’s important to assess any accessibility-ready WordPress theme by checking the keyboard navigation of the navigation menu. That’s usually the most difficult part to get right on a website.

Find Out More About Accessible Websites

You can find out more about accessibility—the basics and benefits of it‚ how to talk to clients about it and even deal with any objections they may have, and even what you can do right now to start helping your clients and yourself. Go to creative-boost.com/accessiblewebsites to get my free guide on understanding accessible websites.

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