Pull Quote: If you give to the community, the community gives back.

WordPress is What We Make of It

Back in 1998 life was easy. For web developers that is. HTML was simple, inline style, no JavaScript, layout in tables, a fixed width of 640 pixels and a simple design. Writing code in Notepad and no CMS. Those where the days.

And look where we are now…

We study, publish, read, listen, meet, curse at new social media, specialize, study some more: a large percentage of our time is spent learning and keeping up. Nowadays our work is hard!

So we do it together!

I can’t remember why I chose WordPress, back in 2009. Maybe after some very awkward experiences with PHPNuke, I liked the clear structure and seriousness of it. WordPress is open source, it has a large community, there is good support and the install is super easy. I never left.

Besides into WordPress, I’m also into accessibility. The web should be available and usable for everyone, not only for the happy few amongst us who are young and healthy.

And I discovered WordPress core, themes and plugins have serious accessibility issues. Some of my clients are blind or can’t use a mouse, and they started to complain about the Admin. And they where right.

What to do?

I tried posting tickets with plugins and writing comments on forums. Nothing really happened. Silence or at the best a “we will look into this” was the response.

This got me very angry. Who do those developers think they are, ignoring people, users, potential buyers, my clients!

In 2012 I did an experiment by letting Leo Dijk, who is blind, try out the Admin with a screen reader. How accessible is the WordPress CMS for a blind content manager. This blog post got a ping back from Make WordPress Accessible.

Wow! I thought there is a team that does the accessibility of WordPress. And this got things started for me. I joined the team.

I discovered that telling someone “you are doing it wrong, fix it” never works, because most developers haven’t got a clue what accessibility is or how to code for it.

So I needed to jump into the deep end and tell them how.

By nature I am very shy. Put me in a room behind a monitor with a coding task, throw in some coffee and sandwiches and I am happy girl.

To say to coders and designers they are wrong and tell them how to fix it, is pretty scary stuff.

Write blogposts, file tickets for WordPress core, discuss with other developers, give talks, disagree with people I look up to, it asks a lot of me. But anger outweighs fear and the response of the community was heartwarming.

It took me some time to find out what works or not.

What does not work:

  • tell someone: you are doing it all wrong
  • point to (complicated) guidelines and say: this is how it’s done
  • being negative and shout: no one cares about accessibility

What does work:

  • educate: write blogposts and documentation, give talks
  • repair: report issues, write patches, pull requests and plugins
  • help: give support on forums and Slack, answer questions
  • meet: go to WordCamps and Meetups, show your face
  • be positive: people do care, they really do

The advantage is: people learn how to code with accessibility in mind. They really get it now and start contributing themselves, as I experienced in the Genesis Community. Others join in and take over, you don’t have to do it all alone. People like a winning team: being positive turned out to be a self fulfilling prophecy. We are now with a solid Accessibility Team and the work gets done! And my clients can use the WordPress Admin much, much better.

The best lesson I have learned

If you give to the community, the community gives back. People are willing to go the extra mile if they know who you are and they see you take an effort too. Like Gary Jones, our cuddly fantastic WordPress code policeman. He watches over the quality of my and others code.

Robin Cornett, Brad Potter and Marcy Diaz, who fanatically dived into the Genesis responsive menu to make it accessible and did not stop until they fully understood it and got it right.

Michelle DeYoung, Gabriela Nino de Rivera Torres and others, who do extensive accessibility testing of WordPress with different screen readers and browsers.

Ryan D. Sullivan of WP Site Care, who sponsored Andrea Fercia and me to go to Philadelphia for the Community Summit, WordCamp US and the Contributors day to work with the rest of the accessibility team.

And the best thing ever: Lead developers, like Helen Hou-Sandí, now ask the accessibility team to review functionality for accessibility before it goes into WordPress core. And promise it doesn’t get into core before it’s accessible.

But I also learned

WordPress can eat you up. The attention is nice and doing stuff for people is very rewarding. But it’s all done voluntarily, for free. So I draw the line at paid client work and my family always comes first. We have to pay the bills and care for ones we love.

This means saying no, or saying later. Hard to do, saying no to work you find important and get a lot of credit for. If I could I would work full time on WordPress Accessibility. Maybe in another lifetime.

What do I get out of this?

Credits! Konstantin Obenland gave me rockstar credits for WordPress 4.3, for setting up and coordinating our accessibility test team of 70 volunteers. My 15 minutes of fame. I still can’t believe that actually happened.

New work! Like fixing the accessibility of the Genesis Framework, auditing and fixing plugins and themes, teaching Team Yoast all about accessibility.

It’s still a lot, to keep up, study, discuss in English and overcome my shyness, but this whole contributing to WordPress has worked out so well. Thanks to all you people who truly care about the project and accessibility.

When I was asked by Topher to write this essay, he told me my story reminded him of the phrase: “Jump into WordPress, the community will catch you!”

And that is exactly what happened: I jumped, you lot caught me.


  1. Rian, thank you for all that you do to make the internet a friendlier and more useful place for everyone. A year ago, I knew nothing about accessibility, and had to do a lot of learning when I had a client who needed an accessible website. Being able to learn from your work has been a huge help, and amazing inspiration. It’s a privilege to be part of a community like WordPress.

  2. Thank you, Rian, for all you’ve done for WordPress, and especially Genesis accessibility. And you were tireless in your efforts, until something actually happened! You’ve helped me to understand what we can do for each site to make it more accessible both with your Genesis Accessible site and also answering questions I’ve had.

  3. Hey Robin and Marcy,
    Thank you, for diving into accessibility :-) The Genesis Community is one of a kind.
    Proud to be part of it.

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