What Can Be Learned From The Gutenberg Accessibility Situation?

What Can Be Learned From The Gutenberg Accessibility Situation?
What Can Be Learned From The Gutenberg Accessibility Situation?
Andy Bell 2018-12-07T11:30:08+01:00 2018-12-07T10:36:51+00:00

So far, Gutenberg has had a very mixed reception from the
WordPress community and that reception has become increasingly
negative since a hard deadline was set for the 5.0 release, even though
many considered it to be incomplete. A hard release deadline in
software is usually fine, but there is a glaring issue with this
particular one: what will be the main editor for a platform that
powers about 32% of
the web
isn’t fully accessible. This issue has been raised
many times by the community, and it’s been effectively brushed
under the carpet by Automattic’s leadership — at least it comes
across that way.

Sounds like a messy situation, right? I’m going to dive into
what’s happened and how this sort of situation might be avoided
by others in the future.

Further Context

For those amongst us who haven’t been following along or
don’t know much about WordPress, I’ll give you a bit of
context. For those that know what’s gone on, you can skip
straight to the main part of the article.

WordPress powers around 32% of the web with both the
open-source, self-hosted CMS and the wordpress.com hosted blogs. Although
WordPress, the CMS software is open-source, it is heavily
contributed to by Automattic,
who run wordpress.com, amongst other products. Automattic’s CEO,
Matt Mullenweg is also the co-founder
of the WordPress open source project.

It’s important to understand that WordPress, the CMS is not a
commercial Automattic project — it is open source. Automattic do
however make lots of decisions about the future of WordPress,
including the brand new editor, Gutenberg. The editor has
been available as a plugin while it’s been in development, so
WordPress users can use it as their main editor and provide
feedback — a lot of which has been negative. Gutenberg is
shipping as the default editor in the 5.0 major release of
WordPress, and it will be the forced default editor, with only the
download of the Classic Editor preventing it. This forced change
has had a mixed response from the community, to say the least.

I’ve personally been very positive about Gutenberg with my

writing
, teaching
and speaking, as I
genuinely think it’ll be a positive step for WordPress in the
long run. As the launch of WordPress 5.0 has come ever closer,
though, my concerns about accessibility have been growing. The
accessibility issues are being “fixed” as I write this, but the
handling of the situation has been incredibly poor, from
Automattic.

I invite you to read this excellent,
ever-updating Twitter thread
by Adrian Roselli. He’s done a very
good job of collecting information and providing expert commentary.
He’s covered all of the events in a very straightforward
manner.

Right, you’re up to speed, so let’s crack on.

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What Happened?

For as long as the Gutenberg
plugin
has been available to install, there have been
accessibility issues. Even when I very excitedly installed it and
started hacking away at custom blocks back in March, I could see
there was a tonne of issues with the basics, such as focus
management. I kept telling myself, “This editor is very early
doors, so it’ll all get fixed before WordPress 5.” The problem
is: it didn’t. (Well, mostly, anyway.)

This situation was bad as it is, but two key things happened
that made it worse. The accessibility lead, Rian Rietveld,
resigned
in October, citing political and codebase issues. The
second thing is that Automattic set a hard deadline for WordPress
5’s release, regardless of whether accessibility issues were
fixed or not.

Let me just illustrate how bad this is. As cited in
Rian’s article
: after an accessibility test round in March,
the results indicated so many accessibility issues, most
testers refused to look at Gutenberg again
. We know that
the situation has gotten a lot better since then, but there are

still a tonne of open issues
, even now.

I’ve got to say it how I see it, too. There’s clearly a
cultural issue at Automattic in terms of their attitude towards
accessibility and how they apparently compensate people who are
willing to fix them, with a strange culture of free work, even from
“outsiders”. Frankly, the company’s CEO, Matt Mullenweg’s
attitude absolutely stinks — especially when he appears to be
holding
a potential professional engagement hostage
over someone’s
personal blog decision:

That’s too bad was about to reach out to
work with Deque on the audits.

— Matt Mullenweg (@photomatt)
November 13, 2018

Allow me to double-down on the attitude towards accessibility
for a moment. When a big company like Automattic decides to
prioritize a deadline they pluck out of thin air over enabling
people with impairments to use the editor that they will be forced
to use it is absolutely shocking. Even more shocking is the message
that it sends out that accessibility compliance is not as important
as flashy new features. Ironically, there’s clearly commercial
undertones to this decision for a hard deadline, but as always,
free work is expected to sort it out. You’d expect a company like
Automattic to fix the situation that they created with their own
resource, right?

You’ll probably find it shocking that a
crowd funding campaign
has been put together to get an
accessibility audit done on Gutenberg. I know I
certainly do
. You heard me correctly, too. The Gutenberg
editor, which is a product of Automattic’s influence on WordPress
who (as a company) were
valued at over

$1 Billion

in 2014
are not paying for a much-needed accessibility audit.
They are instead sitting back and waiting for everyone else to pay
for it. Well, at least they were, until Matt Mullenweg finally committed to funding an
audit on 29 November
.

How Could This Mess Be Avoided?

Enough dragging people over coals (for now) and let us instead
think about how this could have been avoided. Apart from the
cultural issues that seem to de-prioritize accessibility at
Automattic, I think the design process is mostly at fault in the
context of the Gutenberg editor.

A lot of the issues are based around complexity and cognitive
load. Creating blocks, editing the content, and maneuvering between
blocks is a nightmare for visually impaired and/or keyboard users.
Perhaps if accessibility was considered at the very start of the
project, the process of creating, editing and moving blocks would
be a lot simpler and thus, not a cognitive overload. The problem
now is that accessibility is a fix rather than a core feature. The
cognitive issues will continue to exist, albeit improved.

Another very obvious thing that could have been done differently
would be to provide help and training on the JS-heavy codebase that
was introduced. A lot of the accessibility fixing work seems to
have been very difficult because the accessibility team had no
React developers within it. There was clearly a big decision to
utilize modern JavaScript because Mullenweg told everyone to
“Learn
JavaScript Deeply”
. At that point, it would have made a lot
of sense to help people who contribute a lot to WordPress for free
to also learn JavaScript deeply so that they could have been
involved way earlier in the process. I even saw this as an issue
and made learning modern JavaScript and React a core focus in a
tutorial
series
I co-authored with Lara
Schenck
.

I’m convinced that some foresight and investment in processes,
planning, and people would have prevented a tonne of the
accessibility issues from existing at all. Again, this points at
issues with attitude from Automattic’s leader, in my opinion.
He’s had the attitude that ignoring accessibility is fine because
Gutenberg is a fantastic, empowering new editor. While this is
true, it can’t be labeled as truly empowering if it prevents a
huge number of users from managing content — in some cases,
even
doing their jobs
. A responsible CEO in this position would
probably write an incredibly apologetic statement that addressed
the massive oversights. They would probably also postpone the hard
deadline set until every accessibility issue was
fixed. At the very least, they wouldn’t force the new editor on
every single WordPress user.

Wrapping Up

I’ve got to add to this article that I am a massive WordPress
fan and can see some unbelievably good opportunities for managing
content that Gutenberg provides. It’s not just a new editor —
it is a movement. It’s going to shape WordPress for years to
come, and it should allow more designers and front-end developers
into the ecosystem. This should be welcomed with open arms. Well,
if and when it is fully accessible, anyway.

There are also a lot of incredible people working at Automattic
and on the WordPress core team, who I have heaps of respect and
love for. I know these people will help this situation come good in
the end and will and do welcome this sort of critique. I also know
that lessons will be learned and I have faith that a mess like this
won’t happen again.

Use this situation as a warning, though. You simply can’t
ignore accessibility, and you should study up and integrate it into
the entire process of your projects as a priority.

Smashing Editorial (dm, ra, il)

Source: FS – _Marketing
What Can Be Learned From The Gutenberg Accessibility Situation?