I have resigned as the WordPress accessibility team lead. Here is why.

WordPress A11y team Wapuu

Update October 12, 2018:


This post is written with the Gutenberg editor version 3.9.0.

Disclaimer: This post is my opinion and mine alone.

After several years of working on WordPress and accessibility and being part of the accessibility team, I have taken the very difficult decision to leave the WordPress accessibility team. I owe it to the team to explain why I have made this decision and how I hope things can improve for the future.

The last year, especially the last few weeks have been too politically complicated for me. It’s better that someone else takes the lead now.

In this post I’ll try to give an analysis of what the WordPress Accessibility Team (wpa11y team) did during the development of Gutenberg and what the problems are with working on  its accessibility.

Gutenberg

When the development of Gutenberg started, the wpa11y team followed its progress and tested what was there. And we discovered there is much to improve. So Andrea Fercia started to open tickets and tried to find solutions. And that was a huge task.

Codebase

We had four big problems:

  • The codebase of Gutenberg is difficult for all of us, because no one in the wpa11y team is a skilled React developer. So it was hard to implement changes and write PRs ourselves. What we could do is test, tell what’s wrong and what it should be and hope a developer would pick it up. A lot of a11y work has been done by the Gutenberg team but major issues still exist.
  • There was no React developer with accessibility experience in the community, and no React accessibility experts from outside the community willing to work on the issues for free.
  • Functionality that was tested, improved and then approved by Andrea, changed in a later stage, breaking the a11y improvements again. This had quite an impact on Andrea.
  • New functionality was not keyboard tested before implementation (e.g. the date picker).

I used my network to try to get the accessibility experts, companies and developers that know React and accessibility involved. We did a test round in March this year, after asking to the Gutenberg lead when it was ready to do a full test. The results are with the test procedure and with the issues on GitHub.

A complete overview of the test results, with video demos are in the post:
Accessibility of Gutenberg, the state of play.

The results indicated so many accessibility issues that most testers refused to look at Gutenberg again.

Education

Because we could not code all Gutenberg issues ourselves, I decided to help and educate the developers and designers.

Sami Keijonen and I started to extend and reorganise the WordPress Accessibility Handbook adding good practices and ways to test code, content and design. We did a lot of writing, so when filing a GitHub issue, the author can now point to a handbook URL to say: “this is how it’s done”.

This handbook is still being worked on by Jaap Wiering and Daniel Koskinen. See the #accessibility-docs channel in Slack for the discussions about this.

We did research on automated testing. This is still a work in progress as it’s difficult to set up. I wrote a blogpost with my research in Automated accessibility testing during development on the Human Made website and I was gathering the troops to get this on a higher level.

Also, we started a series of dev talks about a11y on meetups and WordCamps.

One good thing to say about all of these Gutenberg preparations is that they increased the visibility of the accessibility team, and it is very good to see them finally getting recognition for their work.

Assistive Technology Manual

For users that depend on assistive technology (AT), like a screen reader or voice recognition software, the learning curve of Gutenberg is very high. If you don’t have a full view of the whole screen or are depending on keyboard focus to perform tasks, Gutenberg is hard to learn.

Claire Brotherton has started to write this manual and she needs AT expert help. See the GitHub issue Manual for users of assistive technology #10373.

5.0 is near

Now Gutenberg is close to release: how accessible is Gutenberg?

In Andrea’s words (and I agree):

“While the Gutenberg team has worked hard to implement some fundamental accessibility features (e.g. focus management, navigate landmark regions), the overall user experience is terribly complicated for users with accessibility needs at the point the new editor is barely usable for them.

The main reason for this lack of overall accessibility is in the overall Gutenberg design, where accessibility hasn’t been incorporated in the design process.

Feedback from accessibility users has been constantly evaluated and Gutenberg is actually a regression in terms of accessibility level, compared to the previous editor.”

Andrea Fercia

What went wrong?

I got feedback this week that we should have written the GitHub issues differently. I was told we should have explained more why they are an issue, so that the developers are more motivated to solve them. Also I got feedback that some accessibility issues are too big, that we should have made them smaller.

It would have been great if this feedback had been added with the issues themselves in a timely way, as some issues are now more than a year old.

In hindsight, what I would have done differently:

  • communicate more often and louder we needed a skilled Gutenberg/React developer way earlier in the process
  • convince the developers that keyboard testing is a must
  • support Andrea more when he asked for a second voice and for testing
  • convince the AT testers to give it a go again
  • invest more effort in recruiting accessibility experts and companies to help

Full time dev

I’m happy that there is now a dedicated developer from Automattic 100% on the accessibility issues. I wish Matthew MacPherson all the best, as he will need it. I hope the accessibility team will help him with everything he needs.

To Matt Mullenweg

To Matt Mullenweg I want to say: please take better care of your community, because WordPress is nothing without it. Cherish the people who dedicate their (own) time and who work very hard to make WordPress the best it can be. Don’t ignore or make fun of them, but talk to them, guide them, inform them. Don’t be disconnected from the community, be part of it.

Thank you

It has been a privilege to work in the accessibility team. I cannot thank them all here. But there are a few people I want give a huge thanks to:

  • Andrea Fercia, who works hard against the odds and often alone on the GitHub issues. I wish I could have provided you with more support for testing.
  • Claire Brotherton, who does a lot of testing and started to write the manual for assistive technology. Claire, you are the unsung hero here, you did so much, and in your own time. You rock girl.
  • Adrian Roselli, who flew several times from the US to WordCamp Europe and London, to help the accessibility team test and find solutions.
  • Eric Wright, who made an excellent video on how difficult it is to use Gutenberg with Dragon NaturallySpeaking.
  • Sami Keijonen, Jean-Baptiste Audras, Laken Hafner, Nic Bertino, Amanda Rush, @bemdesign, Chetan Prajapati and all the people in the #accessibility channel, for their contributions and discussions.
  • Morten Rand-Hendriksen, for his help, support, networking, inspiration and time, and for letting me smoke all my cigarettes in his face at the after party in Belgrade.

What now?

I’m not leaving WordPress nor accessibility, and in fact maybe now I can actually work on accessibility again. I will keep giving talks and workshops. I also want to do research and work on tickets. But in my own pace.

I will join the a11y table if asked on contributor days, but maybe I’ll just go to a museum instead.

For Level Level, the company I now work for, I’m setting up workshops and trainings to teach web accessibility and good code practices. Also I will help the designers, content managers and developers of Level Level to become the best agency for accessible WordPress websites there is. Stuff I enjoy to do and that gives me positive energy.

I wish you all the best, and please reach out if you need my expertise or just want to have a chat or share a glass of wine.

Love,
Rian


61 thoughts on “I have resigned as the WordPress accessibility team lead. Here is why.”

  1. Hi Rian

    sorry to hear you are leaving, you will be missed.

    I am worried about the future of WordPress for us screen reader users, I tested Gutenburg in the beginning and it was bad enough back then, I would hate to think the future for me in continueing to use WP is in jeopardy, I sincerely hope that the powers that are involved in moving this forward will take heed of your words.

    cheers

    Geof
    accessibility tester

  2. Rian, I’d like to thank you very much for what you did as a leader for the accessibility team.

    As I told you before, that was a great leadership in the sense that I give to the word “leader” in the open-source.

    Cheers,
    Jb

  3. In a bizarre coincidence, last night I found my notebook from WCEU Seville where I took notes learning from you before I met you. It drove home how instrumental you were to transforming the role of accessibility across the entire WordPress project. Very few people have made that much of an impact across the ecosystem on issues which really matter. For you to have been thanked for that by being set up to fail is not a reflection on you; it’s a reflection on a project which quite possibly didn’t deserve you.

    But, I need to do my day job here. Has no one considered the legal ramifications of the accessibility issues with Gutenberg? Governments use WordPress, and governments have specific legal requirements, such as Section 508 and the recent EU public sector accessibility directive, which go beyond everyday accessibility tick-boxes. These rules apply both to end users and to the people/employees who make the sites. If a product which was trusted by governments for its accessibility is at risk of being made inaccessible through no fault of the end users, governments will need to look elsewhere. They cannot risk being accused of employment discrimination or failing to provide reasonable accommodation, nor can they afford to spend public funds on workarounds, because of an inaccessible content editor they neither requested nor needed.

    The project may not have done its due diligence on these matters, but its end users will.

  4. Thank you so much for the years of dedication to this important issue. You’ve changed lives, and the ripple effect will impact literally millions of people. You are a gem amongst humanity.

  5. Thank you Rian for all your work and dedication. I’m not an a11y expert but, judging by the regular Gutenberg experience, I’m sure it’s a very hard task. Gutenberg is not easy even for someone who doesn’t use assistive technology. I’m not happy with how this turned out. I wish you all the best.

  6. What a fantastic representation of the current state of WordPress and their dubious motives to force Gutenberg on all of us, without a real, well-thought out plan.

    Thank you for speaking out and wish you all the best in the future!

  7. My dear friend
    Thank you for all you did, for all you taught us and for all the amazing things you’ll keep doing to make the web accessible to everyone.
    WordPress is a poorer place because of this but I support your decision 10000000000%
    I’m waiting for you in Milano with good wine, good food, some #grumpyoldladies rant and lots of love

  8. Thank you Rian for all your hard work, education efforts and supportive leadership – I’ve learned a lot participating with the WordPress a11y team under Andrea’s and your’s tutelage. I understand and support your decision to step away for a bit and engage with WordPress on a more personal (and controllable) level. Best wishes and hope to see you around!

  9. Hey Rian,
    I understand your decision (made a similar one myself in the past) and I just wanted to say, that you had a great impact on WordPress, to me and my thoughts about accessibility.
    Working in your own pace is the great opportunity of voluntary work. Have fun, wine and museums and get back the fun of working in OSS.
    All the best,
    Torsten

  10. I learned early on working in communities, that you cannot implement change against organizational resistance. All you can do is try and then eventually leave. You can bang your head against the wall only so many times before you get whiplash or worse a concussion.

    Rian, seems you did all you could to get things where they are. And because of you and the accessibility team it has come very, very far from the point is was when you started.
    I learned a lot from your talks and posts. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    You are a bright star in the #a11y world of WordPress making the web a better place for all people.

  11. Rian,

    I agree with you whole heartedly about user experience regressions at many levels with Gutenberg. Last year, I had a little more patience and understanding as it was mostly a proof of concept. I don’t think it has improved, and some of the responses by Automattic in the launch schedule have been rather alarming: essentially, if there are accessibility issues, you can go back to Classic.

    That’s such an unfortunate way to view technology. It is endlessly frustrating, and I wholly understand your decision. You have given a lot of time to the project, and a11y is incredibly important in this space. Hopefully something changes. Thank you for everything you have given.

  12. The first WordCamp I ever went to was San Francisco 2014. There was a talk there on accessibility, and I was completely in awe of how WordPress was being used by people to write and document their journey through life.

    It is really sad to see the complete regression of the WordPress project, and how they have abandoned a lot of what they used to stand for (Democratize publishing — for all people).

    Thanks for all your hard work over the last six years.

  13. Rian, you’ve done so much and I’m so sorry that things haven’t worked out as they should despite your best efforts.

    I hope whoever’s gonna take over your post can fill the big shoes that you’ve left behind.

    And I definitely hope we still get the chance to work together!

  14. My very first contribution (into core) was in a accessibility issue ticket. The wpa11y team was very kind and helpful to help me write the patch.

    Besides that I used to work at a company with a blind journalist and he always speaked about how WP helped him to writing.

    Because of all of that (and all I have no idea) reading this post I just want to say: thank you for your work. Yours and from A11y team.

  15. Rian, thank you for everything you’ve done to improve accessibility in WordPress. Your accessibility workshop at WCUS 2016 was a turning point for me personally in taking accessibility more seriously in my own work. Best of luck to you.

  16. I remember watching your talks on WordPress TV, and then meeting you at dinner, with the Yoast team, a few years back. When it came to WordPress and accessibility, I’ve sent people to watch the same videos of your talks. They are absolutely valuable to our community, and I cannot thank you enough for your contributions. Making a decision like this is tough, but things happen for a reason. And I hope it is a wake up for some that we need to focus on some of these things – especially touched on in Heather’s comment, earlier in this thread.

  17. Thank you for all that you contribute and know you have made a huge difference and we all share your mission to make the web accessible for all – you have helped me professionally in ways you may never fully appreciate. You make us all better – thank you! 🌷

  18. Hi Rian,
    Thanks for your leadership all these years on the WP A11Y team. I am a blind user & built my career building WP sites & publishing content & this wouldn’t have been possible with WP being accessible. I am afraid of Gutenberg & its aggressive dates to be pushed into core by WordPress. I heard that it is not A11Y ready & the whole concept of blocks itself is confusing to me. I use the keyboard shortcuts a lot in current visual editor & I am very happy with its current performance. I am hoping to take a look at Gutenberg sometime this weekend & share my findings. Let’s hope the WP community listens to the feedback that Gutenberg must be made accessible before it can be merged into core.

    Thanks to you & your amazing WP A11Y team for your continuous efforts all these years.

  19. I want to echo the same thoughts as everyone else has. Thank you for your contribution. You did your part and you did have an effect on the community. It is now time for you to enjoy doing something different. I hope you can walk away with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction with what you have learned from the last 6 years.

  20. 😶This is such a sad news to read about. Thank you for all you do for WordPress. Years of your work. There’s a huge disconnect in how WordPress use to work and how it is now and I am not just talking about Gutenberg.

    😖I am talking about bullying that’s been going around throughout the community, publications free to publish anything without every confirming or researching it — simple hearsay making news, and no one doing anything about it. Even after several complaints.

    😣 I have come this close to leaving the WordPress community for good. If something is not done things are going to go bad, people _ARE_ going to leave. The fact that there is no appreciation for so much (own) time the WordPress community folks spend on this and still get bullied, talked down to, and what not is depressing.

    😧I agree with Brigit, `All you can do is try and then eventually leave` — I have learned so much from you, thanks for all you do. Hope so you’ll do great.

    Peace! ✌️

  21. Thanks for all of your hard work!

    I can empathize with your contribution experiences and respect your decision. Hopefully, with time, there will be some constructive lessons learned that you can apply to your future open source involvement.

  22. Rian, thank you very much for your leadership. Despite the way it might feel now, you and the team have made great changes. Your work has created the potential for greater changes across all teams. I faced resistance when I began leading teams in accessible development in 1999. There is still resistance. It continues to astonish me that not everyone gets it. It’s quite simple. Everyone needs access.

  23. Dear Rian,

    it breaks my heart that you are leaving the team. Thank you so much for all your hard work und contribution! It was great to work with you. And a huge thank and big hug for all your support you gave me. The A11y-Team will not be the same without you.

  24. Rian, Thank you so much for everything you did for making web better for all. You did really hard work for Accessibility team. I persoanlly greatful to you and Andrea for inspiring me to contribute in Accessibility WordPress Team. It was awesome moment for me to meet you in person at WCEU 2018. I wish you all the best for your future! 🙂

  25. Hi Rian,

    I have personally never met you, but I can tell from your writing here, you poured your heart into the accessibility team (and WordPress). I want to thank you for the work you do. You are correct, so many people that work on WordPress are just never recognized like they should be. I for one appreciate all you did, will continue to do, and this goes for all those involved with WordPress. Thank You!

  26. Thank you for explaining how you got to this point and what needs to happen. I have listened to your talks and always came away inspired.

  27. Thanks a lot for your hard works for the community. As a developer, I think we need more educational material on this topic. And your contribution is really helpful.

  28. Heard about some of this from Mike Little at WCLDN. Thanks for working on WP, thanks for lots of effort. Hope you enjoy the museum and other fun things.

  29. I’m so sorry that you had to experience that frustration and the ridicule that would have caused you to write about encouraging Ma.tt to not “make fun of people” because that not only made me angry but also disheartened to hear that this is going on amongst the leaders of a project that used to be all about the community and the inclusive nature of open source.

    Thank you for all you have done and how you have spurred people to be better at their projects and code.

  30. Hey all,
    Thank you so much for all the kind words and support.
    It’s heartwarming and I appreciate it a lot!

    I’m closing the comments now, discussions on how to solve issues are better done on make.wordpress.org or in the WordPress Slack channels.

    If you want to help, please support Matthew MacPherson, Gary Pendergast and Tammie Lister. They work hard to make Gutenberg the best it can be and they need all the help they can get.

    Love,
    Rian

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