Accessible Wordpress Themes vs. Plugins for WCAG 2.0 AA, ADA Compliance

Wordpress composure dashboard showing on laptop screen while hands type on keyboard.

One of the easiest ways to approach website accessibility is by using Wordpress as your CMS and activating an accessible theme.

Although this isn’t an instant fix, it can be much quicker and much cheaper than having your current website remediated.

If you’re a beginner to web accessibility, here’s what you need to know before you install that instant plugin or a theme tagged as “Accessibility Ready” and call it a day.

Content vs. Code

Let’s divide website accessibility into two parts:

  1. Uploading and creating accessible content (images, videos, audio, text)
  2. Your website structure, the underlying code of your website

With that bifurcation, let’s talk about how plugins and themes fit into the picture.

Plugins

If you’re using WCAG 2.0 AA as the standard to make your website accessible (2.1 takes it a step further but let’s just stay with 2.0 as it’s what courts almost always cite), activating a plugin will not suffice to make your website accessible, not even close.

Joe Dolson is the creator of the single best accessibility plugin on the market, WP Accessibility, and here’s what the download page says:

This plug-in helps with a variety of common accessibility problems in WordPress themes. While most accessibility issues can’t be addressed without directly changing your theme, WP Accessibility adds a number of helpful accessibility features with a minimum amount of setup or expert knowledge.

Pay attention to that bolded part.

What it means is that a plugin can’t solve most accessibility issues on your Wordpress site.

Joe’s plugin is quite good but it can’t instantly remediate your website and no other plugins, free or premium, can either.

Certainly remediating custom content for accessibility is a challenge.

For example, it would be impossible for a WP plugin to add close captioning on your videos for you.

But a significant amount of the coding part can’t be automatically reconciled with WCAG 2.0 AA either.

For example, a plugin can’t automatically account for whether your website can be fully accessed using a keyboard only; there may be an element that creates a keyboard trap that needs manual attention.

So while plugins can be helpful and they can act as a supplement (e.g. Joe has a great plugin that works with Contact Form 7 to provide form field labels) to help make a website accessible, they aren’t a full solution.

Themes

A theme that is designed and developed specifically to meet WCAG 2.0 AA is going to get you very close to accessibility.

With a good theme, the coding part is addressed, but a theme can’t instantly make your existing content accessible.

For example, you can’t simply activate an “Accessibility Ready” theme and then dust off your hands and walk away from your desk with your job complete.

You still need to address all of the content that already exists on your website (it won’t retroactively become accessible just because you upload a theme) and all of the content that you will upload in the future.

Text transcripts are needed. Closed captioning is needed. Alt text is a must. And audio descriptions may also be called for.

And then there’s anchor link text, heading structure, possibly color contrast ratios that need to be looked at, and more.

Also, any forms you include on your website will need to be examined to insure proper labeling, error indications, and instructions.

In short, there is still work to be done even if you use a completely accessible Wordpress theme.

And a quick word on that — some themes that claim to be accessible actually fall short of WCAG 2.0 AA. In fact, some of their shortcomings will be caught by a simple WAVE or AXE accessibility scan.

Here’s another thing to be aware of: any third party toolbars, plugins, widgets, scripts, etc. can create conflicts or simply render your website inaccessible on their own.

For example, let’s imagine you install a social stream widget that shows your Twitter and Instagram feeds in the sidebar of your website. This widget could easily cause your website to have an accessibility issue.

So, even as someone who just wants to make their Wordpress website to be accessible and be done with ADA Compliance ASAP, there are a number of things you have to account for.

The good news is a well-built theme will address accessibility at the code level. This marks the fastest, least expensive way to remediate a website, at least one that currently sits on Wordpress.

Depending on what type of website you have (the complexity of it, custom design, size and scope), you may want to migrate to Wordpress.

For smaller, more simple websites, it’s definitely worth considering.

However, there will be many websites this simply isn’t an option for or isn’t the best solution for. In many instances, it will be more worthwhile to remediate the existing site.

When it comes to using Wordpress — if you aren’t already using it as a CMS — you may want to consider the switch if your website is primarily information-based and isn’t dynamic/interactive.

I teamed up with an amazing developer to create Accessible Theme which addresses every WCAG 2.0 AA success criterion and has 0 WAVE errors out of the box.

We released Accessible Theme in January 2020.

The design is plain and standard so that it applies to all niches and industries. You can find out more about Accessible Theme at AccessibleTheme.com.

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