WordPress 5.0, Gutenberg, and Accessibility

If you’ve been following the WordPress community recently, there’s been a flood of announcements and heated discussions surrounding the upcoming WordPress 5.0 release and the new editor, Gutenberg. In particular, concern has been expressed about the accessibility of the new editor.

In this post, I’ll discuss some of these issues and our team’s advice to campus.

Background

When WordPress version 5.0 is released, the default WordPress post and page editor will be replaced with a new editing experience called Gutenberg. A few weeks ago, the WordPress project announced its anticipated release schedule:

Beta Release 1: October 19, 2018
Release Candidate 1: October 30, 2018
WordPress 5.0 Officially Released: November 19, 2018

If the project is delayed, the core team will then target dates early next year:

Secondary RC 1: January 8, 2019
Secondary Release: January 22, 2019

With today’s update to the Gutenberg plugin, the new editor is officially “feature complete” for the WordPress 5.0 release. Gutenberg now enters its next phase of development, which extends the work that’s been done so far to modernize other parts of the WordPress interface.

If you haven’t tried it yet, now is a great time to check out our quick Gutenberg demo.

Accessibility of Gutenberg

NC State regulations, in accordance with federal law, require that university websites be accessible to all users. But beyond our legal obligations, the university has committed to creating a barrier-free IT environment to all people. For websites, we use WCAG 2.0 level AA guidelines as our benchmark.

The WordPress community shares that commitment, making it a great fit for NC State. The WordPress Accessibility Coding Standards include an unambiguous requirement:

All new or updated code released in WordPress must conform with the WCAG 2.0 guidelines at level AA.

With the Gutenberg editor, a part of WordPress that nearly every user interacts with will be changing. While the Gutenberg development team has worked to address potential accessibility barriers, many in the WordPress community have expressed concern—including members of the WordPress accessibility team.

Note that the biggest concerns are focused on the accessibility of the editor interface. The front-end of your website should not be significantly impacted by transitioning to Gutenberg. In other words, if your site is accessible now, it should still be accessible after you make the transition to the Gutenberg editor. (If it’s not accessible now, that’s a different problem. Call us. Seriously. 919-513-7924.)

This still has a big potential impact at NC State, where anyone—student, faculty, or staff—could be editing content. Whether it’s a WordPress blog hosted by OIT, a WordPress WolfWare site managed by DELTA, or a student employee updating the departmental website, an inaccessible editor could be a major barrier across campus.

At this time, Gutenberg has not undergone a complete accessibility audit to determine whether it meets the WordPress coding standards or other accessibility best practices. Project leadership has indicated that they do not intend to conduct such an audit before WordPress 5.0 is released.

WPCampus Accessibility Audit

WPCampus is an organization for people who use WordPress in higher education. Like NC State, most of the institutions that participate in WPCampus have institutional commitments and legal obligations to provide accessible services.

Today, WPCampus announced a request for proposals to conduct an accessibility audit for Gutenberg. The complete audit report will be published on the WPCampus website as a resource to inform decision-making at institutions around the world.

Once completed, the audit is expected to provide answers about:

  • Whether the new editor meets WCAG 2.0 level AA guidelines
  • Whether code published by the editor meets WCAG 2.0 level AA guidelines
  • What potential accessibility barriers may exist beyond WCAG 2.0 compliance

A more complete description of what should be in the audit report is available in the RFP document linked from the announcement. WPCampus hopes to have the audit report published by January 17, 2019.

(Full disclosure: Members of our team, including me, were involved in putting together the RFP. We will probably be involved in reviewing submissions.)

Our Plan & Our Advice

Here’s what we’re planning to do for most of our campus clients, and what we’re recommending to others on campus:

  1. Before November 19, install and activate the Classic Editor plugin. When you upgrade to WordPress 5.0, the plugin will disable Gutenberg and keep the existing editor indefinitely.
  2. Upgrade to WordPress 5.0. If you get your web hosting from OIT, you’re required by your SLA to keep your WordPress installations up to date. Although the initial 5.0 release will only contain the new editor, later 5.0.x releases may contain important security updates.
  3. After January 17, review the results of the WPCampus accessibility audit. We’ll be working with Crystal Tenan (the university’s IT Accessibility Coordinator) to communicate highlights from the audit and make further recommendations.

The results of the WPCampus audit will give everyone a good starting point for deciding what comes next. If you’re not an administrator for your website, be sure to share this blog post with your admin to help them plan. Our team is available to help answer questions at our office hours or at oitdesign@ncsu.edu

Personally, I’m hopeful that the audit will be generally favorable and that any barriers can be resolved by WordPress 5.0.1 or 5.0.2. When working with testers and early adopters on campus, we’ve found that Gutenberg has a lot of potential for making campus websites better—and the lives of campus content creators easier. But a new technology that excludes part of our community is a step backwards.