WordPress, Accessibility, and Legality

You can file this under “No one does proper systems design anymore.” And this is mostly so you can get a feeling for the pinball-like workings of my mind….

Earlier today, I was reading a posting entitled Short Circuit from the Institute for Justice. (How did I get there? Via The Volokh Conspiracy.) Anyway one of the stories was about a pizza company being sued, under the Americans With Disabilities Act, for not providing accessible websites or mobile apps. Which caused me to think immediately of the problems that WordPress is having with their Super-duper-new-and-improved-editor, Gutenberg.

I spent enough time with it to let me know I didn’t need any of its new and (not so much) improved features, but the folks who use accessibility software – like screen readers – can’t use it at all. (OK maybe they have improved it, but the next story makes me wonder.)

Rian Rietveld published the following article: I have resigned as the WordPress accessibility team lead. Here is why. In that article she quotes a former teammate, Andrea.

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.

Which threw me all the way back to my IBM database days. (How many people remember Information Management System, more generally known as IMS, or DB2?) There was a systems architect who gave a presentation at a bunch of the big conventions (IBM conventions = Guide, and Share). His point was that if you screw up the architecture, it is impossible to fix the problems by coding small workarounds. If you built a 3 bedroom house and then discover you need a 4th bedroom, you may need a bigger furnace/air conditioner. A bigger septic system. etc. While all of this can be done, it can’t be done in a hurry, or on the cheap. And if you aren’t careful, the addition is always going to look wrong when next to the rest of the house. The same thing applies in software. (OR why do you think that after a couple of DECADES of working on computer security, we still don’t have very much? If it was easy…)

There is much in Rian’s article about “We should have written the issues differently” in order to get the programmers to solve them. (Issues that were solved, were broken again in subsequent updates because of development chaos.)

I’m not sure how WordPress development is organized, but I have used it long enough, and dealt with their so-called support often enough, to believe that it isn’t very well organized. Requirements? Documentation? Locked code? Version control? Doesn’t sound like it exists in WordPress. And that’s before you get to issues of architecture, design, etc. (Programmers have to WANT to solve issues and fix bugs? I’m glad they aren’t in charge of supporting my brokerage house’s computer system.) For another perspective on things like User Interface (UI) and Application Programing Interface (API) chaos see the article from November of last year, titled, Pressbooks and Gutenberg.

The lack of clarity in Gutenberg’s development process has hindered us from integrating Gutenberg into our roadmap. We are now two weeks from its production release, and Gutenberg’s API freeze is not yet complete. We’ve been tracking blocking issues over the last year and a half and have tried to contribute where possible, but ongoing API and user interface changes have made it difficult for us to keep on top of things without neglecting Pressbooks core development, and have made us hesitant to invest our limited resources in building on a codebase that has not yet stabilized.

The UI should have been finalized in the design phase – or nearly so. And the API isn’t defined a few weeks before they are going to go live? That should have also, mostly, been defined in requirements and design, before coding started. (What functions exist? What functions do you want to expose via the API? Structure? Error handling? Security?) But then I never worked on systems where we just made it up as we went along.

Now I’m not using Gutenberg; I’m using the “Classic Editor” because it doesn’t suck and it does everything I need it to do, in a way I have been doing things since before there was WordPress. (I was using Generalized Markup Language long before it was extended/co-opted to become Hypertext Markup Language. And WYSIWYG is almost never what I want. Of course I can actually touch type, so that’s a help.) Gutenberg is actually their New, new-editor. Their old, new-editor (that didn’t have a fancy name) also didn’t offer me anything much, even though they tried for a couple of years to get me to use it. They are currently talking about “end of life” for the classic editor. Guess I need to start researching blogging software again.

Maybe the folks working on WordPress will get the accessibility issues ironed out. I hope they do, but I don’t really have much hope that it will get done the way things are going. Consider this: How is it, that in 2017 or 2018, when they started this project, that accessibility of the finished product was not a primary part of the design? It was not even a 2nd thought, but pretty much completely ignored, until they got a ton of bad press on the subject.

This all started because of legal problems a pizza company ran into over accessibility via the web. I’m no lawyer, but my guess is that WordPress and Co. won’t be in hot water as long as the Classic editor supports everything required. (Though making one class of customers go through the back door doesn’t look good in the 21st Century.) WordPress isn’t the first organization to ignore issues of accessibility, and the way programmers work on things, I doubt they will be the last.


6 thoughts on “WordPress, Accessibility, and Legality

  1. One thing that kept running through my mind while typing this, is I was trying to remember the first time I worked with a blind programmer who used a screen reader and voice to text to get his work done. I can visualize his face, but I can’t remember which company we both worked at. Though I would guess it was in the late 1990s. (Given the state of the technology we had back then.)

    Microsoft has been shipping some version of a screen reader since 1999 with Windows 2000. So whoever is responsible for WordPress code should be aware of this kind of technology.

    And finally one thing I didn’t include in the quote from Pressbooks in the article… They have a number of .gov clients, and those clients absolutely must have accessible systems. (You can see how telling people, “Everyone can pay their water bill online, except for the blind” might be a problem. Well, I think anyone doing development in the 21st Century should be aware of that kind of thing.)


    • Actually there were 2 guys at 2 different companies. One used voice to text, because he couldn’t use a keyboard. His hands were mostly useless as the result of a serious accident. (I worked with him in the early 1990s.) He had some early voice-to-text which let him work.

      And then later I worked with a blind programmer (late 1990s) who used a screen reader.

      I can’t say what the state of the tech was, but both of them were good at their jobs. (My memory isn’t completely gone, but it isn’t what it used to be!)


  2. I won’t play like I understand that I know all of the ins and outs of what most of the people who read this will just intuitively understand. What I do understand is at best, the basics of what you are talking about. And of course, the incompetence of those whose job, their only job, was to get this ready for rollout. Pretty much in the same fashion as what we refer to, derisively as Obamacare.
    It used to be that most of the people I knew would always say, If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. So when these brilliant whiz kids found that there was a serious problem with the interfacing of the two systems, they should have rewritten the original system, with the thought that down the road, they were going to want to merge the functions of both of the systems together.

    Now, in writing this critique, I sense that I probably am both over simplifying, but am also mostly wrong, with my assumptions, and my thought process that it would be a better way of going about things, if I am even thinking correctly. I of course, realize that I probably am completely off the mark. But even if I am completely messed up, I think that my premise might be possible. Go back to square one, when things were working, and make your fixes there, that will allow the integration of the two systems. Don’t wait until the last minute, to try and hook them together, only to find that it won’t work. That is kind of like the old restaurant cartoon, of where the two groups were building a railroad, and both teams come together, only they are 4-6 feet off to either side of one another.

    I sometimes say, “How can we allow this sort of thing to continue to happen, in this day and age, when we can send a person to the moon, or can fly from New York to Paris in 6 hours, or fill in the blank. Maybe take a picture, and send it clear across the entire world, within mere seconds. And still we allow screw ups to continue like this. Not only is this unacceptable, but should not be tolerated in a business.
    My high school football coach, rest his soul, was a former US Marine, who was shot twice in Vietnam. He had every reason to be resentful, yet he was not. But he did not allow us to use football as an excuse for poor performance in school, like, ” But coach, I was too tired to do my homework, after getting home from a hard practice.” It was simply not tolerated. In my house, my parents were both working class, manual laborers. My dad worked his whole life in a foundry, and my mother nailed pallets by hand, before they ended up buying a restaurant, at which time she worked there the rest of her life. They both had good friends who were what is now referred to as people of color, but whom we called black. These people, who by the way, were fantastic and decent people, would often bring their kids on their way up north to visit relatives, in northern Michigan, the state where I have lived my entire life. We would usually spend time in our yard playing with their kids, while the adults chatted in the kitchen or living room, drink a beer or coffee. It was never mentioned, but was simply a given, that it would have been unacceptable for us to mistreat our guests, in any way. And even more so to treat them poorly due to race in any way. Not that we would ever have done so, it just would not have occurred to us, my twin brother and I.
    I wish you luck with everything and hope your are able to get things running. And I hope yo forgive me for rambling on about something that I have little knowledge about. Be well.


    • Actually you got most of it right, with one exception.

      If the original people did their jobs well, then there is a backend – with a set of functions (create post, save post, publish post, etc.) and a user interface. Then you are (or should be) free to create new interfaces for old systems. It’s how we took legacy systems and connected them to the web. Often you didn’t want those legacy UI’s to disappear, because for some people they were more powerful, just not as easy to use. (They also screamed when if came to performance, something the web can still struggle with.)

      This also let you build bridges between systems.

      “How does this happen?” How do we screw up at such a basic level? Because every new generation is convinced they have nothing to learn for us old-timers. Building systems using [fill in the blank – Python, React, whatever] is SO different from the way systems used to be built, that the old rules don’t apply.

      They conveniently overlook the fact that Linux, MacOS, Android, and iOS are all offshoots of Unix, which dates to 1970, at least. (Mid 60s if you consider Multics.)

      And there is management that doesn’t want to pay, or underestimates the problems. (You can put Obamacare into this category. “How hard can it be?”) Before I quit my last job, I used to say that people yelled at me all day because I didn’t know how to put 10 pounds in a 5 pound bag. I couldn’t do 2 million dollars worth of development for 500 thousand dollars. (That’s a whole OTHER post. Executives who installed a new version of MS Office on their home PC, don’t understand why installing an enterprise-wide manufacturing scheduling application can’t be done in a week.)

      There is an old Dilbert cartoon, which I used to have in my office – even though it wasn’t earning me any points with my bosses. The pointy-headed-manager handed Dilbert the schedule for his new project. “I started by assuming anything I didn’t understand was easy to do.”


  3. The Guttenberg for WP is a hot mess. Not sure who’s bright idea it was to take what was working and making it less user friendly. It took all of about 5 seconds to realize that I wouldn’t even bother. I’d love to have a survey asking how many actually use it.


    • If you spend your days creating Themes, instead of actually using WP to publish to the web… maybe. The great idea came from the site-builder at SquareSpace (I think.)


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