Which of Drupal and WordPress is the most accessible content management system? – Digital Accessibility Experts Podcast 5

Welcome to podcast 5 of our Digital Accessibility Experts Podcast series.

Most websites these days are created via some form of Content Management System (CMS) – over 27% of the world’s websites use WordPress, for example.

There are lots of CMSes out there. So how do you choose the right one for you? One thing you could think about is how well the CMS allows you to create websites that are accessible.

Graham Armfield in our team has been working to make WordPress accessible for years. And Mike Gifford, who has been leading accessibility work on Drupal, is another good friend of ours at Hassell Inclusion. So in this month’s podcast we’ve put them together to discuss their work.

We’ve some great insights below on:

We hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoyed recording it! And if you’d prefer to read the podcast, rather than listen to it, read the transcript.

If you’re more interested in the accessibility of Adobe Experience Manager or SiteCore, please check out information on their accessibility in my recent blog What’s new in Accessibility in 2019 – standards, authoring tools, frameworks and design thinking.

What do you think?

We’d love to know your thoughts on this podcast. Please share your comments below.

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If this has been useful, you might like to sign-up for the Hassell Inclusion newsletter to get more insights like this in your email every month.

Transcript of audio

Jonathan Hassell: Welcome to the Digital Accessibility Experts Podcast from Hassell Inclusion. I’m delighted this month to have a couple of people who I’ve been trying to get together and failed miserably a couple of months ago. Mike Gifford from Canada was over in the UK, and we had a lovely conversation, I believe at the St Pancras Hotel. It was really great. I bought him a beer, which is always good because the other guy I buy a beer for, Graham Armfield, is the guy who should have been there, really, with me, because it would have been a much more interesting conversation.

I wasn’t able to set that up whilst Mike was here in the UK, but actually, at the end of Mike’s really great presentation on Drupal accessibility at the London Accessibility Meetup that evening, I suddenly had that moment of clarity and said, Wouldn’t it be great to have you, Mike, who’d been doing stuff on Drupal, and Graham, who’s been doing stuff on WordPress, both in the accessibility arena… It would be great to get the two of you together to discuss, I guess, anything that is similar about the journeys, anything that contrasts between the tools, and maybe, if you like, share some of those joys and frustrations of working with these CMS’s.

That’s what we’ve got for you today. Mike is coming to us down the beauty of Skype, so hopefully that will hold together for us for the next hour.

I’m going to start by asking the same question to both of you. Mike, you first, so how did you get into accessibility?

Mike Gifford: I’ve had friends who had cerebral palsy or other disabilities, from high school onward. But I think I realised at about 2008 that there was a lot more that I could learn, and there was a lot more I could contribute by actually getting involved in the Drupal community. I saw that there are ways that we could make Drupal more accessible in the core product, and that that would be something that would help us go and sell to government or educational institutions.

My impression was that Drupal was already going to be very accessible and that it wouldn’t take very much to go off and to just say, “Hey, we’re WCAG 1.0 compliant and so we should be… Let’s put that little button on the bottom of Drupal sites and away we go.” Ten years on, I’m no longer trying to go off and to claim that Drupal is a fully compliant content management system.

Jonathan Hassell: Sure. Why Drupal, Mike? What was it that turned you onto that as being a CMS that you wanted to spend your time with?

Mike Gifford: I had a content management system I’d managed earlier. There’s one called BackEnd that I guess I took over the maintainership of that project in 2002 or 2003, but I realised, after working on it for, I guess, two, three, four years, that it just wasn’t able to go off and do what we needed it to do, and that we’d started with a good base, but we had created a bit of a farmhouse of a content management system.

We made it so that it could be fully multilingual and had done a lot of work to build the PHP MySQL content management system, but we just outgrew it and realised that there was so much more that we could do by engaging with the Drupal community, which was moving very quickly. We were told that multilingual content was going to be something that was going to be their future release and that that was quite far along. We saw that we were able to move our clients ahead on that.

The multilingual element was something that we needed for our client base since we’re based in Ottawa, and everything has to be English and French, more or less. We just could not do that in WordPress. We also liked the infrastructure that Drupal had set up. It fit more with the way that we think about content and the way that we think about how we wanted to go off and engage with complex national-level organisations.

Jonathan Hassell: Cool. Graham, over to you, so how you got into accessibility and how you got into WordPress. Why that CMS?

Graham Armfield: I got into accessibility around the turn of the century. (Laughter) I used to work for a large financial.

Jonathan Hassell: Yes, really, turn of the century. Everybody on this call – Mike, I heard you laughing there – so when did you get into accessibility, because I think it wasn’t yesterday for you, either, was it?

Mike Gifford: I got in in 2008.

Jonathan Hassell: 2008, okay. We’re going to make you feel really young today, so that’s good. (Laughter) So, turn of the century, Graham?

Graham Armfield: Turn of the century, me, yes. Yes, I used to work for a large financial company here in London. I, kind of, got into it because my manager told me to. I was interested in it. We had a demo from an agency who we worked with. The guy showed me how a screen reader worked, which I’d never seen before. Then he gave me some information about how to change a website so that the screen reader would actually make sense of it.

Then my manager saw that I was interested, so I became in charge of making sure that all the public websites that we did in that team were accessible. I built some myself. I was quite proud of what I was doing there. Obviously, looking back on it, things could have been better, but at the time it was like ground-breaking stuff for the financial markets in this country.

We did build a content management system. It was actually Java based. I didn’t do much of the back end, but I was in charge of translating the XML output into the front-end code and making all that accessible for the flagship brochure website for this organisation, but things-

Mike Gifford: It is a great learning experience, having your own content management system.

Graham Armfield: Absolutely; absolutely. So, I did that for a few years. Then during the financial crash, things didn’t go well with the company that I was working with. I took voluntary redundancy and set up my own company. Then I got into building websites for small businesses, as well as trying to do accessibility gigs as well.

I actually built my own very simplistic content management system in PHP, which I did about two or three websites for small businesses with. But then I needed a blog on my own website. And I searched and someone suggested WordPress was a good option. So, for a while I had just WordPress as a bolt-on blog on my own website. But then I realised that you could actually build the whole thing with WordPress and so that’s what I did.

So that’s how I got into WordPress. I built accessible WordPress sites for clients, like charities, and also people who had disabilities, like I’ve had clients who are blind, clients who are deaf. But I started to get frustrated by the fact that, especially in the admin area, WordPress was just a mess from an accessibility perspective.

Mike Gifford: I wish you could say that that is no longer the case.

Graham Armfield: I wish I could say that that’s no longer the case. (Laughter)

Jonathan Hassell: I think with all of these things, I think it’s going to be quite interesting. The two of you have similar experiences. I didn’t realise the two of you actually had your own CMS’s before the CMS’s that we’re talking about today. So that’s one more touch point, really. But it’d be interesting just to start off by just saying one thing you like about the CMS you use.


So, Mike, accessibility aside, why do you like Drupal?

Mike Gifford: I guess that the big reason that I like Drupal is that it is it’s a very modular structure. All of the modules extend an API with Drupal. The form’s API allows you to have a great deal of control over your content, but there’s a lot of ability to centralise or organise things.  So there’s more consistency across the board because everything is using these central APIs to manage how the themes are functioning, and how the forms are working, and how interaction happens within the sites you’re building.

Jonathan Hassell: Graham, what about WordPress? What do you like about it?

Graham Armfield: Once I’d set up my own website so it ran with WordPress, including the blog, I realised how easy it was to build a theme in WordPress. One thing I found then that, when I was showing it, using it to build websites for clients, is that clients actually liked the one-to-one correlation between a page on the website and an edit page within the back=end of WordPress. They just seemed to understand that easily.

Also, they liked the editing experience, which up until recently hasn’t changed drastically, which was just like – in some ways just like – editing a Word document. And clients just found it easy because most of the clients I’d built sites for had no technical knowledge whatsoever. So they could build… They could just, effectively, like editing a Word document, they could build the content for their own websites, given the theme that I created for them.

Mike Gifford: I think one of the things that comes up with Drupal again and again is you come for the code but you stay for the community. I think that there’s a really nice community in the Drupal world. I’ll be off to Seattle in, I think, three weeks, for DrupalCon.

It’s great to have this global community of people that are working on the same code base and who are able to know and trust each other, and be able to learn from each other as we grow and explore how to go off and address the challenges of the web today.

Jonathan Hassell: Graham, you’re off to WordCamp Bristol. As well as London.

Graham Armfield: WordCamp London is in a couple of weeks and, yes, I’m speaking at WordCamp Bristol, which is in May. I try and get to two, three, four WordCamps a year. I’ve become part of the community because I’ve done a lot of speaking, but I’ve also made a lot of friends up and down the country. This is in the UK, obviously.

Each of these WordCamps and the meet-up groups I also go to. It becomes like a social event, as well as a sharing of information and whatever, so that’s really good too.

Jonathan Hassell: And I mean the one thing that brings those two things together is that community sense that you’re all contributing to something.

Graham Armfield: Yes.

Jonathan Hassell: That’s the thing which I think for me is really inspiring about these things. It’s what software can be: something that people can come together around and do great things.

Graham Armfield: Yes.

Jonathan Hassell: Both of you have come together around the CMS’s that you support, in the area of accessibility. So, I was just interested in, Graham, if you wanted to start, what made you get involved in the accessibility side of WordPress?

Graham Armfield: I was inspired. I’ve always been idealistic, Mike, about the Web. I’m sure you probably feel the same. The Web should be for everyone, really, and it’s frustrating when it isn’t. I quickly realised that the admin area of WordPress – this is especially after I had a client who was blind – it was just a total mess. It was diabolical and so I got involved in… I wanted to change that.

I realised that WordPress was… It was used by a substantial number of websites, so the stats weren’t quite so readily available in those days. We’re talking about eight or nine years ago now. You felt that, “If I can make this one improvement here, that’s going to benefit an awful lot of people,” and so that’s how I got involved.

I started off on the support forums, but I didn’t find I was getting anywhere with that.But it was actually I was invited to speak at a WordCamp in 2012 in Edinburgh, in Scotland. I wasn’t going to even go, but someone said, “Look, we’d love you to talk about accessibility. What do you think?” and, since I love getting up on my back legs and talking about staff, I accepted their invitation.

And that was an absolute revelation, because I was supposed to talk for half an hour, but in the end they held the sessions for me and I ended up speaking for an hour and a half, including questions, because it just wowed and turned so many people’s heads. This was quite… I felt like a rock star afterwards, I must say. (Laughter)

It’s like people were saying, “This is so important.” I just did some simple demos of how poor, from an accessibility perspective, the admin area was, especially at the time they’d just introduced the Menu Builder, I think it was, or the Customizer. It was just totally inaccessible because it was a pop-up. It was a big pop-up panel and then you know what’s coming next. You get in, try to get into it with a keyboard, and the focus just stays on the underlying page, so you couldn’t even operate it and so it was just a… People were actually raising Trac tickets whilst I was talking on that. It was quite an interesting experience.

Jonathan Hassell: That’s cool. That’s really cool.

Graham Armfield: So, I started realising that was what I was doing, so I started, I got myself the ability to raise Trac tickets. Then after that, then I was invited to a lot more WordCamps and meet-up groups. The ball just kept rolling, basically.

Jonathan Hassell: Yes, so it was community that actually wanted to listen to what you wanted to say.

Graham Armfield: Most people wanted to listen. Most people wanted to listen.

Jonathan Hassell: As well, they actually wanted to do something about it pretty quick.

Graham Armfield: Yes.

Jonathan Hassell: One of the things that I think we find a lot in the accessibility world in general, I guess, is that often you get asked to test whether a website is accessible or not, and you don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen afterwards.

Actually, I don’t think anybody in accessibility wants to test a single thing. We just want to improve stuff. I guess what I’m hearing there is that this community actually took what you were trying to contribute, and did something about it.

Graham Armfield: Then I found the Make WordPress Accessible team. I didn’t found it by any means. It was already there, but I became an active member in that. There were a few other people, who are still there, as well joined around the same time. And, for a while, there was some real momentum in the earlier days about…We made some great successes, really.

So, it was part of a team effort. Because myself, just on my own, I had some successes there, but it was a very scattergun approach almost, really. It was much better when we were part of a team, to actually try and influence stuff then, really.

Jonathan Hassell: Yes. Mike, I’ll come to you in a second to see how this plays in with your experience on Drupal, but just one last thing about, you know… It’s that influence, I think, that for me is really important about all of this stuff. I’m guessing that, Graham, you wouldn’t have spent so long doing things in this community if you didn’t think that things were actually changing as part of that.

Graham Armfield: Yes.

[Influence]

Jonathan Hassell: So how did you get the influence? How did you get the people, if you like, at the top to take you, and maybe the rest of the Make WordPress Accessible community seriously and say, “We really want you to help us make this better.”

Graham Armfield: Okay. That was through meeting at WordCamps, especially WordCamp Europe – the first WordCamp Europe, which was in Leiden, about four, five years ago, something like that, because it was such a big event, and also the first WordCamp London. A lot of the core contributors, a lot of whom were from the US, but not all, obviously, but a lot of the core contributors actually came to both those events because they were seen as prestigious events. So, I just got chatting to people – Andrew Nacin being one key person within the WordPress community – at both events.

He was interested himself in accessibility and so then it was just, kind of, getting to know these people, getting to find out how you actually got changes involved, like through the contributor days that the WordCamps have. You don’t have to code it all yourself. You can just make suggestions, and then you find the developer who can actually do it for you. Raising a ticket is the first part, making/proposing solutions and then finding developers.

So, it’s just badgering people. Sometimes, sadly – and I don’t know what this was like for you, Mike – and on occasion getting really frustrated and kicking my toys out the pram.

Jonathan Hassell: That works?

Graham Armfield: If you do it every time, then of course people just tune you out of the conversation, but just occasionally kicking up a real fuss actually can make a difference.

Mike Gifford: It certainly can.

Graham Armfield: Yes.

Jonathan Hassell: Mike, so you know prams and toys, as well. (Laughter) Is that part of your repertoire of influencing in the Drupal community?

Mike Gifford: Yes, I think that the general model is one where, like in any open source project, there’s an issue queue. I think that, if you want to go off and make sure that your issues are addressed, the important thing is to go off and make sure that they’re in that issue queue, not in an old version of the code base but on the latest developer release of the code base, because that’s what developers are looking at. They’re not looking at fixing the old code from a year, or two, or three years ago; they want to know what’s going to… They’re working on the code that hasn’t been released yet.

So, you work on the very latest code base. You put up an issue against that, that code. You then go off and propose some suggestions, as Graham suggested, you write a patch to go off and to address that, and then you keep nudging it ahead. You provide links to other examples. Some of that can be pointing to documentation; some of it can be pointing to other teams that have implemented this.

We’ve certainly linked to WordPress from time to time. Every once in a while we’ve linked to WordPress or to Joomla and then see what they’re… What are those communities doing, or Moodle? There are a few different communities that are trying different things for accessibility, and it can be useful to point them to say, “Hey, they’re doing this over here. Maybe we should try that. Maybe we should try that within our own community.”

Jonathan Hassell: You’re obviously doing a lot of really good stuff. What was it that kicked you off into, “Yes, okay, I’m going to spend, probably,” what it sounds like, “A considerable amount of time in actually trying to influence that”?

Mike Gifford: Yes, I’m glad I didn’t actually count the thousands of hours I’ve spent looking at this, because I’m sure it is in the thousands of hours, (Laughter) but essentially it’s a bit addictive to be able to start making change and realising that the changes that you’re making, if you’re addressing these issues at the source, you’re actually able to improve a pretty huge portion of the Internet.

Graham Armfield: Absolutely.

Mike Gifford: Drupal and WordPress work differently, so, because I’ve focused on Core instead of on the modules and themes, I can say that I’ve helped move ahead 3% of the Web.That being said, there are some really amazing themes, and plug-ins that have been improved by the WordPress community. I think that the work that Graham, and Rian and others have done really helped to push ahead 30% of the web, which is wonderful.

So I think that there’s an addictive quality to be able to actually see change happen and not be in a position where you’re constantly retesting information and retesting broken web links. It’s satisfying to be able to actually make progress in this world and to see that you’re actually able to improve the accessibility of a very popular platform.

Graham Armfield: Absolutely, Mike, absolutely.

Jonathan Hassell: Yes. One of the things that is massively important to me – I just do it in a different sphere – is impact, really. I think that’s what we’re talking about here. We only have a limited amount of time, and so it’s where you use your time and certainly one of the things that we spend a lot of time really thinking about is how do we take the skills, the experience, which is still pretty rare, really – there are still nowhere near enough people out there who really know their onions when it comes to accessibility. How do we use that great experience we have best, really? How do we get the impact that we’re looking for?

It sounds like you both hit on two sides of the same coin, really.


Mike, what are you most proud of? Of all of those thousands of hours that you’re trying not to count, what’s the thing where you look at it and you go, “That was so good”?

Mike Gifford: I think that what I’m most proud of is that I proved what can happen when you get a group of people together to collaborate on a common project. There are some great developers, like the other Drupal accessibility maintainer is actually in the UK – that’s Andrew McPherson. But there are other people, like Angie Byron and others that have taken a leadership role in the Drupal community and have been really influential in making sure that some of these patches get addressed as quickly as possible and that the culture changes.

If accessibility is going to be addressed, you have to actually change the culture. You actually have to see that the community as a whole is able to understand the value of that. I can’t take responsibility for changing the culture. I think I played a role in influencing it, but having leaders like Angie – and for that matter Dries, the founder of Drupal – go and talk about accessibility, and to raise these issues in the community and make accessibility a core gate, has really elevated accessibility within the Drupal community. It’s not just a feature or a nice-to-have, but, because of a leadership commitment from the Drupal community, it’s something that is taken seriously, that it’s a bug and not a feature request. That can make a huge difference in terms of how projects are dealt with.

Jonathan Hassell:  Yes, absolutely. Graham, what about you? What were you most proud of for introducing into that WordPress community?

Graham Armfield: I mentioned earlier the Customizer and the Menu Builder, which were two new big features of WordPress that have been introduced into the admin since I’ve been in the accessibility team. They were both a bit disastrous to start with, but we came up with solutions for both, which made them a much more accessible experience. I’m not saying the Customizer is perfect, because it certainly isn’t. But certainly the Menu Builder – it was drag and drop to start with. Of course, that’s going to inconvenience quite a few people. But we managed to cajole one of the core developers to actually introduce some features in there so that it was actually possible to do, effectively, the drag and drop, but with a keyboard. It was a little bit Mickey Mouse in some ways, but it actually worked and so you could manipulate your menu items just using a keyboard if you wanted to, so that was pretty good.

We also got the default WordPress themes, like the current one is 2019, I think, or 2018. I forget now. All of those series of themes were pretty good from an accessibility perspective. Other members of the team have helped introduce the theme review guidelines. I’m thinking Joe Dolson, who has played a key role in introducing this accessibility aspect to the theme review. If you submit a theme to WordPress, there’s this, sadly optional, extra check you can go through, and then you can wear your ‘Accessibility Ready’ badge with pride if you pass that extra thing.

Jonathan Hassell: Themes are the templates. This is the thing that enables you to get a really head start on what your website is actually going to look like. All the different sections and that sort of thing.

Graham Armfield: That’s correct, yes.

Jonathan Hassell: Life isn’t always like that, unfortunately. So just a check on what hasn’t worked. Graham, one of the things that I feel like you might be about to say, it’s quite famous, certainly in the accessibility community last year… So what do you think hasn’t quite made it?

Graham Armfield: Before I start talking about the ‘G’ word, I’d looked at Drupal over the fence over the years, and just to echo to you, Mike, that I have been quite jealous of the way that I think, was it, Drupal 7 or Drupal 8 – I can’t remember – where there was this huge commitment to accessibility?

Mike Gifford: It started in Drupal 7.

Graham Armfield: Yes, and you could see that actually that’s within the accessibility team. Once again, it wasn’t just me, it was people like Rian,as you mentioned, and Joe and what have you. We wanted that sort of commitment to business being done properly within WordPress. Sadly, we’ve never quite made it.

A lot of people within the WordPress community think accessibility is really important. But there are, sadly, key people, including a certain person right at the top, who doesn’t really feel that it’s that important to actually get it right. Whenever you start to talk about accessibility to him, he switches it to talk about internationalisation, which is a very important thing, but it’s not the same as accessibility.

I’m frustrated. For example, the admin area is available in multiple languages, including both sorts of Norwegian. (Laughter)

Jonathan Hassell: I didn’t even know there were two sorts of Norwegian. There you are.

Graham Armfield: But, you see-

Jonathan Hassell: You learn lots on these podcasts, don’t you?

Graham Armfield: But the point there is that actually WordPress admin is available in both these sorts of Norwegian. However, there are way more people in the US who are blind than there are people in the world who speak Norwegian. So, it’s about, if you’ve got a limited amount of time, let’s do the stuff that potentially numerically is most important.

There’s never been, in WordPress, that real commitment – real commitment – to actually driving accessibility forward. There has been, for some two or three years now, a commitment that says, “All new features” – and this is after the Customizer and the Media Handler debacle in the past – there has been this commitment to making all new functionality has to be WCAG compliant, but that just seems to be… I hesitate to use the words ‘lip service’, but it’s what it seems to have been like, basically, because it’s not stopped the way that features have been developed, at all.

What often happens is that some of the devs, some of these people do great stuff – great stuff, don’t get me wrong – but they were all about “breaking the Internet”, getting new stuff out there and breaking it, basically, and not about getting things to be as accessible as they could be.

The latest iteration of that is with the new WordPress editor, which has been known up to now as ‘Gutenberg’. Which has been a project that’s been going for two years or so now. It has been in an extraordinarily frustrating experience from an accessibility perspective. And, for a while, I just withdrew from contributing to WordPress, because I was just so burned out with the negativity around it.

There’s been some fantastic work done – Tammie Lister, being one particular person who was involved in the design aspect – she has done a lot to try and keep accessibility afloat within Gutenberg. But a lot of people are just not interested: “Let’s build it and fix it later,” which, as we all know, is a recipe for disaster from an accessibility perspective.

Jonathan Hassell: Yes, it is – well, certainly a recipe for doing accessibility in the most expensive way, if not financially, certainly, in terms of those thousands of hours that you were talking about.

Graham Armfield: Yes. We’re already into… We’re into Gutenberg phase two now, and there are new features coming along. The widget area is going to be Gutenbergised and everything like that, and other stuff as well, the Menu Builder and what have you. It’s like, “Why can’t we actually fix the issues that we’ve already introduced, first, before we actually go pell-mell into introducing all these new features, for which there are massive accessibility challenges?”

Mike Gifford: Yes.

Jonathan Hassell: Yes, that’s what last year sounded like, at the end of it for a lot of people, which was something where we, as an organisation, I was looking at WordPress, thinking, “This is great. Graham is doing brilliant stuff in here. This is having great impact. What more can we do?”

I must admit, “What more could we do?” foundered on the rock of Gutenberg. Because it’s, kind of, like, “Well, actually, if people are getting burnt out in the accessibility community who are touching this at the moment, that’s not a good thing.” So, yes, we all held back there for a while. Mike, have you had moments like this with Drupal, or is all lovely in the Drupal world?

Mike Gifford: No, it’s certainly not all lovely, but we haven’t had quite the emotional and the traumatic effect that Gutenberg seems to have had. I think that there are a couple of reasons to that. Partly, it’s that we have commitment from the top around accessibility. That doesn’t mean that everything is always accessible. There’s definitely stuff that is introduced in experimental modules that are a bit… Sometimes there’s stuff that slips in there, and also because developers want to create new stuff and so there’s always new stuff coming along.

The accessibility people aren’t necessarily involved in the creation of those projects, because there just simply aren’t enough of us. There are few people who are volunteering and working on these issues, and contributing to the issue queue of core and contributed modules. There are quite a few people that are involved in this, but it’s not like there’s an accessibility role within each development team for a core project and that there’s somebody designated to watch for and address issues that come up.

I think the other thing that Gutenberg has run up against is the fact that they’re trying to solve a really hard problem, like drag and drop is an issue that we addressed back in Drupal 7, simply by disabling the JavaScript for that particular component. Instead of using the mouse to drag and drop an item up and down the interface, you would be able to just enter in a number and change the weighting of how something sits within an order of documents.

It’s a different thing, though, when you’re looking at trying to go off in place an object in potentially two or three dimensions, like you’re increasingly looking to do within these fluid layouts that people are striving for. JavaScript, like React and Angular, these great front-end tools, are something that are coming into effect across many platforms, but the JavaScript developers, in many ways, have not learned the importance of semantic HTML. So…

Graham Armfield: Bingo.

Mike Gifford: So much of the time there, they could build in good semantic HTML to the React components they’re building, but they don’t and so then they try and slap in ARIA to try and provide the results, and you get a hacky kind of implementation because the first rule of ARIA is “don’t use ARIA”. ARIA is a fall-back should HTML5 not be available. You shouldn’t be building so that your sites are relying on ARIA to go off to implement the semantic behaviour.

Jonathan Hassell:  You’ve both been working in this area for a while. It would be useful to see, what have you learnt through the process? What do you know now that you didn’t a while ago? I guess the thing I’m thinking is that, I massively respect the both of you because of the journey you’ve gone with these tools and actually the things you’ve been able to achieve in them. So, I’m thinking, say, there’s somebody out there who has not started that journey yet. What would you say are the things you’ve really learnt that made all of the highs and the lows worthwhile? Graham, let’s start with you.

Graham Armfield: I want Mike to start first, because I want to think of something.

Jonathan Hassell: You want to think. (Laughter) Still smarting from that Gutenberg thing.

Graham Armfield: Yes, a little…

Jonathan Hassell: Mike, what have you learnt from the process? What do you think Drupal has enabled you to learn, as an accessibility specialist, as a developer, as a human being?

Mike Gifford: Partly, it’s humility. There’s just so much to learn, and people come out in so many different ways. There are still things that I keep running into, and challenges that I don’t have answers to, like we don’t have yet any way to test for visually induced motion sickness. This is, if you have an interactive element on a page, at some point some levels of that movement can actually make people feel sick.

We don’t have a solution for this, and there isn’t really a best practice out there for dealing with VIMS that is easily understandable and that can be managed in most of our web browsers. We’re starting to go off and be able to deal with things like ‘Dark Mode’ and preference for colour preferences for websites, largely thanks to Apple going off and releasing the new Dark Mode across their operating system and their browsers. That’s interesting…

But I think the biggest thing that I’ve learnt, other than how much there is to learn and how complicated this is, is that a lot of times you need to understand the system in order to be able to make change. That if you are looking at addressing accessibility problems on a page-by-page basis, you will never, ever be able to make any significant advances in the accessibility of your site, let alone of your organisation as a whole. So trying to understand how systems are put together, and where your footer template lies, and, for that matter, how people create content. What are the organisational structures and silos that are possibly getting in the way of people learning about accessibility and implementing common patterns that make it easier for users to be able to have a really inclusive experience?

I think that that’s mostly what I’ve learned, is that there’s… Just that I’ve gotten an appreciation for systems by having spent a decade looking at the Drupal content management system and understanding how many levels there are to accessibility, and how much work there is to do before we’re making sites that are accessible by default. If that’s the goal, we have a long ways to go before we’re able to achieve that.

Jonathan Hassell: Yes, that’s great. Graham, has that given you time?

Graham Armfield: Yes. Thank you, yes. (Laughter)

Jonathan Hassell: Great answer; great answer, Mike. Love that combination of humility and just, “Wow, there’s a lot of complexity there. How do we deal with it?” Graham.

Graham Armfield: I think you’re right, actually. For me, the experience of working through Gutenberg, where I have contributed and seen not much changing – or solutions that I’ve provided ignored – it still is quite raw. But I think what I have learned through the process is that you can’t ever achieve things on your own. You mentioned about teams. I mentioned about the accessibility team earlier.

I think you have to be mob-handed on this. You need to have a team of people who care about this, and you need to have some kind of strategy on the battles that you’re going to fight, and the battles that you just haven’t got time to fight, really. You need to prioritise, and you need to build consensus and find allies within the core developers. That’s, in our case in WordPress that I’ve used successfully in the past, is to find out people who will do you a favour.

I’m very proud of the one change that I made to Core some years ago that I managed to get in there because I was a good friend of the team lead for one particular release. I won’t embarrass him by naming his name, but suffice to say that I actually contributed a couple of lines of code which made something more accessible. So, it’s about collaborating with people, but also knowing your limits, really. Not giving up, in some ways.

Jonathan Hassell: Yes, and fighting the right battles.

Mike Gifford: Also, in terms of allies, it’s also worthwhile looking at allies not just as individuals but other movements or other issues, like accessibility and the work of search engine optimisation. There are some similarities there.

I describe accessibility as a way of trying to be future-compatible, because a more semantic website will be easier for a machine to be able to read the information, so you’re able to reach out to those people who want to have integration with Alexa, or Siri, or Google Home.

Graham Armfield: Yes.

Mike Gifford: Also, what you said there reminded me of that famous Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” That’s what we’ve got, is a group of WordPress and Drupal citizens that have been trying to go off and make these platforms better.

Jonathan Hassell: Yes, absolutely. As I say, I have two of the citizens with me. It’s an honour.


We haven’t got very long left. I’d like each of you to say something about – given all you’ve heard and given all you know about these two things – which do you think, if you were starting again, if you didn’t have the rich history that you had with the CMS that you know so well, if you were starting right from scratch now, which of these do you think is most accessible? And which of these do you think is the place that you would spend your time? Mike, I’ll start with you.

Mike Gifford: I think that, without a doubt, Drupal is the most accessible. It’s the only thing that has even started to go off and incorporate ATAG A and B, which is the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines, to allow not only people with disabilities to be able to author their content but be able to ensure that authors are assisted as much as possible in creating accessible content out there. I think that Drupal is right now the most successful content management system out there.

That being said, WordPress is 30% of the Web. If I’m looking at impact, if I was starting this again and not starting from a point of having that knowledge and experience with Drupal, it would be really tempting to go off and look at WordPress, because if you’re able to create change within the WordPress community and influence the core team within WordPress, you’re moving a much larger portion of the Web and being able to potentially benefit a lot more people.

The work that the WordPress community has done has been really great. I really like the efforts to try and have those branded, accessible themes within the WordPress community. Again, that sends signals to the people within the WordPress community about the values of accessibility and the awareness of these issues.

Jonathan Hassell: Sure. Graham, how about you?

Graham Armfield: It’s an interesting question because I think, having a very brief flirtation with Drupal many, many years ago, before I got into WordPress, I think I’d like to explore that a bit more, really.

I agree with Mike. I think overall Drupal is a much more accessible… The commitment to accessibility is more consistent. That’s not to devalue the people within the WordPress community who do have massive commitment to accessibility, but I think it’s all joined up in Drupal a lot more than it is in WordPress.

But your point about the reach is important. It’s got a phenomenal reach, WordPress, but I think I just want to… I’d love to see how we can steer that ship a bit more in the future within the WordPress community.

Jonathan Hassell: Yes, absolutely. It sounds like on one side you’ve got, maybe, more possibility of making more impact, but more challenges and more barriers in the way, on the WordPress side.

Graham Armfield: Yes

Jonathan Hassell: On the Drupal side, things feel like it’s a nicer place to be, certainly at the moment. But actually, if you like, in some ways you need more people to come join you and actually use the platform, to get the best out of all of that great impact that you’ve been able to have.

Graham Armfield: Mike, I just wanted to ask you a question, actually, because one of the-

Mike Gifford: Sure.

Graham Armfield: During the Gutenberg story, there were… I think it was, like, late last year, there were stories surfacing that actually Drupal was thinking of introducing Gutenberg into itself. That did intrigue me, actually, so what’s the story there? Is that actually going to happen, or what?

Mike Gifford: There is a Gutenberg module that is out there. But I think more seriously there’s a team within the Drupal community that’s looking at building a React back-end for Drupal. To try and do what Gutenberg did, but to do it in a more Drupal-y way.

Hopefully, that will be something that will be accessible, but a problem that both of our teams have is that we don’t have people on our teams who are really strong at JavaScript and really strong at accessibility.

Graham Armfield: Yes, that’s a real problem.

Mike Gifford: There aren’t that many people who fit that camp. If we’re moving to any JavaScript back-end, whether it’s React based, or whether it’s a Gutenberg clone, or whatever it is, you need to have people who understand React, and JavaScript, and accessibility, and are able to go off and create good semantic HTML – and, where necessary, ARIA as part of that.

But you can’t have all of the JavaScript wizards off in their own little camp, doing their own stuff and then toss it over the fence to the accessibility team, which is more based in an HTML, CSS kind of framework most of the time than a JavaScript development environment.

Graham Armfield: Sure. That’s exactly what happened in WordPress, I think, yes.

Mike Gifford: I think that was a big part of the problem. It’s still part of the problem that we’re facing at Drupal.

Graham Armfield: Yes.

Jonathan Hassell: Yes. I think it’s actually part of the problem that everyone is facing at the moment. It used to be that people really didn’t care about accessibility very much, and actually these days it feels like there are a lot more people who do, but there are still far too few people who really know how to help those people.

Mike Gifford: Yes.

Jonathan Hassell:    Certainly it’s one of the things that we’re thinking a lot about these days, is just to do as much training as we can to share the knowledge of guys like yourselves around as much as possible, because that’s the sort of thing that makes the difference, really. I just wanted to thank you both today.

Graham Armfield:     Pleasure.

Jonathan Hassell: As I say, I think that’s been really, really interesting. Hopefully, next time we can all be in the same physical location. Maybe we’ll come over to Canada, Mike. That would be pretty awesome.

Mike Gifford: Summertime is better than right now, just….

Jonathan Hassell: Right, okay.

Graham Armfield: So I’ve heard.

Jonathan Hassell: Yes, so we’ve heard, absolutely. (Laughter) Thank you so much for your time, Mike.

Mike Gifford: Just one last thing I should say is that a lot of the accessibility problems that you run into are not really tied to the CMS itself but are tied to the browser or the assistive technology, or for that matter, user behaviour and user expectations.

If we can go off and build collaboration between open-source content management systems, we can exert a lot more pressure on the assistive technology vendors and the browser vendors in order to go off and just to build tools that work well with the Web.

If we’re all in our fragmented little corners, then the browsers are going to do whatever they want, but if we say, “Here is a pattern for drag and drop, and we will work and use this pattern for drag and drop for our websites,” then they’re not going to turn away 30%, 40% of the Web.

Jonathan Hassell: Yes, absolutely. Coming together, I think, is exactly the right thing whenever possible. I think a lot more conversations can happen from now, but thanks so much for your time today. We’ve really enjoyed having that combination of your experience and Graham’s together on one of our podcasts. I hope everybody has learnt a lot from that, as well. And both through the easy stuff and the hard stuff, there are a lot of learnings there that I think a lot of people can be really grateful that you’ve shared today, so thanks so much.

Next month on the Digital Accessibility Experts Podcast we’re going to be talking about Return On Investment. If, like many organisations, you decide to invest your time and resources into getting good at accessibility and embedding it throughout the way your digital teams work, what benefits will that bring to your organisation, and how do you measure them? Join us next month to find out…

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