Accessibility toggles in WordPress

Thing 6 – my continuing adventure with 23things

Today’s thoughts have been a long time coming, mostly because it has taken me a long time to test and evaluate my experience of accessibility as a WordPress user. I am lucky, I have my own WordPress websites, hosted on my own server space so I have a lot of control. However, today I am looking very much at things as they would be for my colleagues, using the tools and versions of the tools which they have access to.

I think this is important, as all too often we as our colleague to exhibit specific behaviour when it comes to technology use, but if we don’t support them in doing this by making it simple, easy or quick, then can we really expect them to take onboard this other timeconsuming task after we’ve already asked them to change their habits and use technology?

This is the blogging platform which has been launched at my institution recently. A WordPress multi-site option and it is brilliant. I love it. And I think this is an important point to make, I am about to point out some flaws with this, but I am not criticising the offering itself. I do think it is fantastic and I encourage its use daily. I am merely using it as an example of how difficult it can be to keep on top of these things and the barriers there are to being able to provide everything we’d like to. So let’s have a look.

How do we use this blogging platform? Well mostly, in my school, people use it as a personal website where they can share their research. We also have people using it as a teaching tool, a place where their students can reflect, demonstrate and present their learning. We talk about digital scrapbooks, which as I work in an art school, is not a new term. Students in all disciplines in an art school are expected to keep sketchbooks, so this is about giving them an option to do this with their digital experiments too.

Obviously, when any of our staff and students are being encouraged to use these tools, we do raise the topic of accessibility, but it is always done with a very light touch. We are conscious that we are trying to encourage the use of a new tool, therefore discouraging people early with talk of responsibility, legal requirements and important practice which is alien to them is less than encouraging. However, after watching the fantastic video from Robin Christopherson this morning, I was inspired to ask, how can I make this easier for the folk I talk to.

Video showing a blind presenter and how they navigate presenting technology and lots of examples of how technology can help and hinder less abled users.

So let’s talk about accessibility options that don’t fry your brain.

On WordPress, the easiest way to do anything is using plugins. That way you don’t need to be able to programme (code) using HTML in order to make your website do things. That’s the draw of these free blogging platforms. Unfortunately, as you can imagine, giving people free rein to do anything they want doesn’t make for an easy workday for the IT Support teams trying to manage the effects of rogue plugins or the well-intentioned but disastrous outcomes of people who don’t entirely understand how things work (in the backend).

So on our shared WordPress sites at work, we can’t just download and activate any old plugin, instead, there are a set of preinstalled plugins we can use. There is one called WP Accessibility, which we are going to talk about. Unfortunately, it is switched off as standard. So if people don’t know about it, and why they should use it… they won’t. Therefore, most of the blogs I have looked at on our platform just don’t have the accessibility features activated. Which is a shame, it’s not perfect and it doesn’t do everything you might like, but it’s a quick, simple tool that can make a difference.

showing the wordpress plugin list

So here are some basics about this plugin. It’s not definitive as obviously I am no expert, but the basics should give you enough to investigate further should you fancy using this.

Skip links

The plugin allows you to configure skip links, which is really useful for anyone using a screen reader or keyboard shortcuts, to “skip” unneeded content. Because I use screen reading software sometimes, I find this useful.

Accessibility toolbar

This is the main use of this plugin. It allows you to provide very basic functionality to the user, increase the font size and use high contrast.
You can make it more useful using CSS style sheets, but this would require knowledge of coding.

showing the accessibility tool bar

As you can see, it’s very simple, basically, toggle on or off, but simple is good when we are trying to encourage people to think differently.

The high contrast feature allows you to switch background and font colours. I’ve used them to go from a white background with black font to a black background with white font. Some visually impaired people find this useful.

The text size toggle allows you to switch between the standard font size on the screen to a larger one. You’ll notice it also turns the header into standard text. Easier to read.

Now there is no one size fits all. So as much as I encourage you to do what you can to make your blog easier to manage for others. Installing this plugin will only help some of your readers. For instance, I have dyslexia and Irlen syndrome and these features don’t really help me. Instead, the ability to change the colour of the background or font would be much better, rather than the contrast. In fact, high contrast actually makes it harder for me.

Unfortunately, these abilities are not always available, but you can still think about how you can make your site easier for others by deliberately choosing fonts, colours, design ideas etc which has everybody’s ease of use in mind.

I wrote a blog post on this before, just talking about why I chose to make my blog look the way it does.

My recommendation is to start with the basics and watch some videos of web users experiences, read some blog posts from other people on how they have taken on this journey and speak to the web designers in your workplace. You can’t do everything, but little steps go a long way. Begin by watching the video I recommended earlier if you can, that should inspire you.

Before I wrote the post above, I undertook an evaluation of my blog and it was really helpful. I used the tool recommended by the 23things site, called WAVE (web accessibility evaluation tool).

I’d recommend you make a cup of tea and just slowly worked your way through the items it highlights. It was really informative for me.

Most importantly though, allow yourself some slack. You can’t make everything perfect for everybody, so rather than overdoing it and then giving up feeling despondent, try to prioritise the things you think are most important in relation to your site and work on those. Do what you can.

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I'm Eli and I blog about the inane things which interest me namely gardening, cooking and cycling and occasionally geeky educational technology things. I live in sunny Musselburgh with my lovely wife Kate and our cats.