WordPress Theme Review Team Initiates New Long Term Plan to Make All WordPress.org Themes Accessible

The WordPress Theme Review Team (TRT) met today and agreed to put new accessibility requirements in place for themes hosted in the official directory. These include some of the items that are required for theme authors who want to add the accessibility-ready tag. A handful of these requirements will soon be added to the standard requirements for all themes. The initial focus will be on items that do not have a major visible impact on a theme’s design, as the team anticipates some pushback from designers.

“We’ve long made the argument that WCAG can’t easily be applied to a theme which has no content; I don’t think we want to break that,” Accessibility team member Joe Dolson said. “For the purpose of theme testing, I think it’s still better to target a customized set of criteria that are content-independent. But if we can incorporate the first four items in the guidelines, I’d be super happy. The rest of the criteria, while important, are harder to assess and implement, and have greater impact on design.”

The Theme Review Team has agreed to start gradually rolling out new accessibility guidelines every other month while educating developers to help them get on board. The first requirement will be Skip Links, followed by the other three that are outlined in the Theme Review Handbook:

  • Skip Links
    Themes must include a mechanism that enables users to navigate directly to content or navigation on entering any given page. These links may be positioned off screen initially but must be available to screen reader users and must be visible on focus for sighted keyboard navigators.
  • Keyboard Navigation
    Theme authors must provide visual keyboard focus highlighting in navigation menus and for form fields, submit buttons and text links. All controls and links must be reachable using the keyboard.
  • Controls
    All theme features that behave as buttons or links must use button, input, or a elements, to ensure native keyboard accessibility and interaction with screen reader accessibility APIs.
    All controls must also have machine-readable text to indicate the nature of the control.
  • Form Labeling
    Comment forms must have appropriate field labels and all content within form tags need to be explicitly associated to a form control. Post-submission responses (errors or confirmations) must be perceivable. If you are using the default WordPress comment or search forms, these pass the accessibility-ready criteria.

“The changed requirement wouldn’t encompass all the accessibility-ready requirements to be present on the standard themes, nor would it automatically make them accessibility-ready, but by incorporating one by one requirements, through longer time period, the idea is to encourage theme authors to write accessible themes out of the box,” TRT member Denis Žoljom said.

The team is also re-examining the efficacy of the Trusted Authors program and whether there is evidence for discontinuing it. They are considering removing the child theme queue, which was incentivizing authors to submit more child themes since the queue moves faster than the regular one.

Imposing stricter accessibility requirements for WordPress.org themes is one suggestion that theme authors discussed over the weekend as a potential response to WordPress.org’s growing problem with crippleware. The expectation is that stricter requirements would shorten the queue of themes ready for review and perhaps even motivate companies to invest in accessibility testing to improve that process. While it may not have a direct affect on theme companies’ ability to produce crippleware, it makes the barrier for entry higher so that reviewers have more time to focus on improvements to the directory and the review process.

The new accessibility requirements will apply to all themes hosted on WordPress.org, not just new ones entering the directory. Existing themes will be expected to meet the requirements as they pass through the review process for updates. However, the team will not be actively hunting down old themes to suspend them. Today’s decision marks an important turning point that has the potential to have a ripple effect across the entire theme industry, as WordPress.org sets the standard for theme development. These new requirements give legs to WordPress’ commitment to accessibility in what TRT member Justin Tadlock called “a small but major step toward accessibility for all in the directory.”

The News Project Launches Its First Customer Site CALmatters

The News Project founded by Merril Brown has launched its first customer site, CALmatters. CALmatters is a nonprofit journalism venture that covers politics, environmental regulation, education, and more.

The site sports a new design, a fresh logo, and was built using WordPress. The News Project describes itself as a “solution that integrates best-of-breed content, audience and revenue tools that a typical news venture would assemble separately at far greater cost in time, effort and dollars.”

Interestingly, Newspack, a vertical on WordPress.com and open-source plugin tailored to newsrooms and journalists is described in a similar fashion, “It’s a ready-to-go, intuitive, revenue-focused publishing platform that will let small and medium-sized newsrooms dedicate more resources to their journalism. Newspack will be simple to set up, easy to use, durable, flexible and fast.”

The descriptions and the services being offered are interesting because of what happened earlier this year. Back in January, WordPress.com secured $2.4M in funding from Google and other partners to build a publishing platform for news organizations. Around the same time, The News Project announced it received a six-figure investment from WordPress.com VIP which is essentially accomplishing the same thing.

I don’t understand why Automattic would invest in The News Project and then create a vertical on WordPress.com that solves the same problem. Since The News Project is already using WordPress to power the CMS and WordPress.com VIP to host their customers, perhaps the capital was more of an in-kind gift.

Regardless of the relationship between the two company’s, newsrooms and small-to-medium-sized publications are getting more options to consider when it comes to hosting and a CMS that’s highly tailored to the industry.

Anders Norén Release Free Chaplin Theme Designed for Block Editor, Theme Authors Discuss Better Ways to Promote Truly Free Themes

Anders Norén has released Chaplin, his 20th free WordPress theme, designed specifically for use with the block editor. Chaplin could be loosely described as an agency or business stye theme but the capabilities of the block editor enable users to create advanced page layouts that would suit many different types of websites.

The layout for the front page shown in the screenshots can be easily recreated by adding a new page, selecting “Cover Template” for the page template, and adding a featured image. Users can then add columns, images, and paragraph text using the block editor to recreate the structure of the demo. Norén has included detailed instructions in the theme’s readme.txt file for setting it up to look like the demo.

Font and color settings can both be found in the Customizer and these styles will be reflected in the block editor for a more realistic preview of the content. Chaplin comes with infinite scroll built in and additional settings for displaying and hiding specific post meta on archives and single posts. The theme has logo support, widget areas, a social menu with icons, sticky header support, and a search overlay. Check out the live demo to see all the features in action.

Shortly before the release of WordPress 5.0, Norén worked to get all of his themes compatible with the new block editor. Most of his previous themes were created to be niche-specific and easy to have looking just like the demo upon activation. One drawback was that the only way to really customize his themes was to create a child theme and add/or custom CSS, something that is out of reach for most WordPress users.

In a post introducing the theme, Norén described how the new block editor inspired him to start building themes differently than he had in the past.

“For a while, though, I’ve been thinking about how I could build a theme more customizable than the ones I’ve been making so far,” he said. “With the introduction of the Block Editor in WordPress 5.0, any page on a WordPress site can accommodate pretty much any layout, making WordPress itself a lot more flexible than it was just a year ago. If the Block Editor would enable users to create any layout on their site, and the theme would allow them to style the layouts however they want, then that could end up being pretty useful.”

Chaplin is a successful departure from Norén’s previously static themes that gives users more freedom simply by making the block editor the main vehicle for creating and rearranging the home page layout. No two customizations will look exactly alike because users can arrange blocks in any combination.

This theme is a good example of the possibilities that the block editor opens up for users who want more control of their sites’ layouts and content without having to wade through pages of documentation and dozens of panels of Customizer options. In many ways, themes that fully embrace the block editor are beginning to make older themes seem two-dimensional. This shift in focus is an important milestone in the evolution of theme development.

WordPress Theme Authors Discuss Better Ways to Promote Quality Themes on WordPress.org

Based on the community response to Chaplin’s release, it’s clear that there is a real demand for themes made specifically for the block editor. However, WordPress.org is not currently set up to promote themes like this.

If you filter for “block editor styles” and “wide blocks” when searching for themes, WordPress.org search currently returns just 26 themes.

Unless you already know about a specific theme and search for it, the best themes are difficult to find. The Featured and Popular Tabs inside WordPress’ theme browser do little to surface block-ready themes.

In a related discussion that popped up over the weekend, long time Theme Review Team member Justin Tadlock contends that the WordPress.org theme directory is “becoming little more than a crippleware distributor.” He is referring to those themes that do not enable users to further customize them but rather lock away certain features behind upsells.

“Essentially, many themes submitted are a ‘lite’ or ‘free’ version of a commercial theme with extremely reduced functionality,” Tadlock said. “For example, we had a theme author trying to upsell access to post formats (a core feature) the other day.”

Fellow Theme Review Team member Danny Cooper cited Elementor’s Hello Theme as one example of “the new breed of themes that only exist to ‘sell’ something else.”

Participants in the discussion suggested WordPress.org employ stricter enforcement of upsells or implement a more nuanced tag system that would identify themes that have some features locked for users who don’t purchase an upgrade. Others suggested theme authors meet the minimum accessibility requirements as a new threshold for entry into the directory, which would likely slash the number of themes waiting to be reviewed and incentivize companies to invest in accessibility testing to improve that process.

“Honestly, I would prefer all themes with upsell to be filtered out into their own section of the directory, so it’s clear to visitors what themes are free and what themes are ‘free,’ Norén said in response to the discussion. “It would also reduce the incentive for theme shops to flood the directory with crippled themes.”

Norén is one of a handful of theme authors who are submitting high quality themes to the directory that are truly free from upsells. In a time when it’s still not common to find new themes built specifically for the block editor, WordPress.org might benefit from featuring these themes in the same way it does for block-enabled plugins.

WPWeekly Episode 359 – Diversity Speaker Training With Jill Binder

In this episode, John James Jacoby and I are joined by Jill Binder, Founder, and Chief Consultant and Trainer at Diverse Speakers In Tech. We discussed how and why the Diverse Speaker Training group was created, how the training encourages underrepresented people to speak at WordCamps, and how the recent 50% sponsorship funds from Automattic will be used.

We also learned that local communities that have participated in the training at the meetup level have seen a sharp increase in the number of diverse speaker applications submitted to WordCamps. Binder is hoping to be sponsored 100% so she can work on the project full-time. If you’re interested in sponsoring her work, please visit her contact page and get in touch.

Stories Discussed:

Announcing Pantheon Localdev Early Access

WooCommerce 3.6.5 security release

Jetpack 7.5

Discuss This Tweet by John O’ Nolan


EPISODE 359 Transcript

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Next Episode: Wednesday, July 10 3:00 P.M. Eastern

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