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WordPress accessibity: is the Gutenberg editor that bad?

A few months ago I was invited to present at the WordPress Perth meetup and it was a fantastic event: great people, interesting discussion about one of the world’s most popular open source CMS platforms (WordPress, naturally!), and pizza: a great trifecta in my opinion. However, while the IT staff and I were battling it out to get sound working on the projector, I couldn’t help but notice one word kept coming up in conversation around the room again and again – Gutenberg.  

So why has the Gutenberg Editor been such a big deal in the context of digital access, and is it really as bad as it seems? Now that I’ve had a few months of experience I thought it was a good time to share my thoughts.

WHAT IS THE WORDPRESS GUTENBERG EDITOR?

For people who aren’t familiar with WordPress, the much-loved CMS recently went through a major transition to version 5.  The centrepiece of the change was the introduction of a new content editor associated with the new version known as the Gutenberg editor. The editor was a significant transformation which moved away from the multilayered icon editor that WordPress users were accustomed to and instead provide a more dynamic, bubble-tile system with drag-and-drop functionality to make it easier, in theory, for users to interact with modern content. There’s a good tutorial on YouTube to introduce people to the new editor.

However, in terms of accessibity, its introduction was met with a scathing reception.

WHAT HAPPENED TO ACCESSIBILITY?

In the second half of 2018, people using the pre-release of the Gutenberg Editor started to notice that the usual processes in the WordPress development cycle were not being applied to accessibility. While it’s sadly not unusual for new products to consider accessibility as an afterthought, this was far from the case for WordPress which is often touted as the most accessible CMS around and one I personally use. As such, there were a lot of people raising a lot of concern as to why the accessibility issues were being largely ignored in the rush for an end-of-year release.

Realising that little was being done to address the concerns, in October 2018 Rian Rietveld resigned as the head of the WordPress accessibility team with a detailed discussion on what the issues were and how the lack of attention was breaking WordPress’s remarkable accessibility credentials. As a result, the GitHub issues continued to pile up as the launch grew closer  This led to much venting on social media, especially when it was confirmed that the accessibility audit would be postponed.

The issues that were highlighted at the time were many, but to pick out a few themes there was a huge issue relating to keyboard accessibility, several core functionalities were broken such as the date picker, the nature of the bubble list of tiles mean that the options kept moving, meaning that people with cognitive disabilities and screen magnifier users to have difficulties locating them, and critical functionality like the block button would be on the side for some things and disappear to the top-left of screen for others. This made for a difficult experience to an audience accustomed to WordPress being a standout for its accessibility support.

IS IT REALLY THAT BAD?

Fast forward a few months and with WordPress 5.1 now rolled out and a new accessibility team at the helm, is it as bad as it was in 2018? To explain how it is from my perspective,  I’ve recorded a video of Gutenberg in action based on the publishing of a news item on my own WordPress website using my assistive technologies of a screen magnifier, a screen reader and a high contrast colour theme.

 In my experience there’s still challenges, especially with the block button moving and the tiles shuffling around, but broadly speaking I’ve found over time there’s a lot I like about Gutenberg. One of the best features is that when I’m creating articles in Word and there’s extra spacing, Gutenberg editor does a great job in formatting my text and getting rid of extra spaces and line breaks. This saves me a lot of time hunting around for empty spaces that I used to do in my old editor.

Another feature I like is that the block button – when I can locate it – does have a lot of useful features in a relatively small area. I wish there was a way I could set the feature so they won’t move, and perhaps you can, but over time I’ve got used to the interface and finding I’m actually able to speed up my posts. Another point of praise is that everything can be viewed perfectly in my high contrast colour scheme, and I can’t praise this work enough. In many CMS editors I end up in a situation where the buttons have black text which means in my colour scheme it becomes black-on-black and disappears. This is not a problem in WordPress and for that I’m very thankful.

However, I still find the new editor frustrating in many ways. The biggest one is trying to figure out how to get an image uploaded without drag-and-drop which is tricky. I understand where the option is and the process, but it is cumbersome compared to the old ‘add media’ button that was always in the editor. The other thing I find a little frustrating is that it now takes several steps to select a heading level. Instead of just going to the drop-down menu and choosing my heading level, I now have to first select the tiles button, choose Headings, then choose the level. Again, there may be an easy way to get around this, but when it takes three steps to do something that used to take one, it seems like a backward step. That said, I’ve noticed that a lot of the other accessibility issues are being addressed and I’d certainly like to express my thanks to the WordPress accessibility community for working through the GitHub issues.

To conclude, I don’t think WordPress Gutenberg is quite there yet, but I still consider it the best of the bunch if you’re looking for an accessible CMS. With practice, I’ve been able to overcome a number of the initial issues. With clear evidence that the accessibility issues are being taken a bit more seriously now I’m confident it’ll continue to be a dominant force as an accessible CMS platform. Just one final comment before signing off to the WordPress developers: if you’re rushing to release a product, and the digital access community are strongly encouraging you to address issues beforehand, please address them – the importance of WordPress in accessibility is huge and it’s my hope it remains that way.  

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