When will open source care about accessibility?

Over the past few days, the open source community has been watching an event unfold that, quite honestly, I find extremely amusing and long overdue.

Here’s a short breakdown. I don’t care to go into it in depth, because, honestly, I couldn’t care less that non-disabled WordPress fans and WordPress staff are upset by this decision. Let them be pissed for a while. They deserve to have their ego bruised.

W3C, the World Wide Web Consortium, has recently embarked on a project. Basically, they’re doing a full web property rebuild. its vendor Studio24, announced it dropped WordPress from consideration as a CMS. WPTavern took issue with this, and Studio24 responded, pointing the finger directly at Gutenberg.

Now that I’ve provided links for all the drama and the corporate tantrums, Let’s get into the commentary.

Automattic has millions of dollars. I’m not joking. They’ve had many investors over the years. It wouldn’t surprise me if, actually, they are a billion-dollar company. No shock there, right?

I’m talking about Automattic because they play a big hand in the direction of the open source Word press, even if they try to tell you otherwise. They do. They basically drive WordPress.com, which is what I’m using as a space on the web until I find a new home. They also have a huge hand in the self-hosted, open source, version of WordPress, which is WordPress.org.

In 2017, Automattic thought everybody would want a brand new, shiny, editor for their blogs. This new editor, called Gutenberg, would revolutionize Blogging. Totally. For some reason, Automattic saw places like Wix and Weebly as competition, so wanted to make a new editor that would knock everyone’s socks off. Unfortunately, in their innovation, they forgot the most important rule of design. Making it usable.

It even sounds bad on paper. Gutenberg breaks up every element on your post or page into a separate, singular block. So, for example, if you wrote three paragraphs, each paragraph would be a completely separate block you’d edit individually. You’re not writing a document, anymore, you’re, well, I’m not quite sure what you’re doing. You’re editing chunks of elements, which, honestly, is not how working with documents works.

The whole concept is a solution to a problem that never existed, which is why people are switching to writing markdown in a plain notepad document and just pasting it into a space.

Naturally, since the non-disabled community hates it, and are flocking to ClassicPress instead, you wouldn’t be wrong if you guessed this new editor is, neither, accessible, nor easy to use for the Disabled community. The accessibility problems are too many to count, and its clear accessibility isn’t a priority. At all. I mean, it gives me a headache trying to use it, and that’s even after knowing how it works with NVDA.

I’ve been witnessing open source developers whine for the past week about W3C not holding up the open source commitment because they chose to focus on accessibility instead. My response, principles don’t mean doodles if people can’t use your software or service because it has unlabeled buttons. If there’s a wall blocking someone from using your moral piece of software, why should they care about open source software and, by extension, privacy focused software.

For years, many smart disability advocates have tried to get the open source community to make accessibility a serious priority. The community never embraced inclusive design, fully. That’s why you have advocates saying it’s about time tables were flipped.

In general, the open source community has a ton of privilege it hasn’t even begun to reconcile with yet. The community assumes everybody has the freedom to even care about big tech without worrying about access. They are so blind to their privilege, they are actually offended Disabled people use accessible big tech like Apple, Zoom, and Microsoft. Here’s the catch. They’ve never been unable to use an app or service. Their community is entirely volunteer based. They get to have choices we will never have.

Because they have luxuries I’ll never have, that’s having the freedom to care about privacy and my own data, I don’t feel at all sympathetic the community is hurt the W3C chose to use a closed, but fully accessible, CMS.

I’m glad this is making many angry. It should make everybody in WordPress and beyond stop and think, hey, we need to do better. But I have a strong feeling that won’t happen on a large scale. When it comes to inclusive design, people will, sometimes, actually argue against inclusive design.

Many teams, and even companies, will use privacy as a weapon to force employees to use inaccessible software. Software where simple things like edit fields are not labeled.

Accessibility is never a priority, except in very few cases. This places people in a position of, once again, fighting to just make it past the initial stage of software. For a disabled person, even installing software without prior accessibility assurance is extremely anxiety inducing.

I hear that the community cares about accessibility. I find that extremely hard to believe because accessibility is just a pet project for even the most popular software. LibreOffice still hasn’t labeled all their controls in their own settings dialog box, for example. Buttons keep being empty. Links keep being made without care. Keyboard support is still rarely considered in projects.

Inclusive design benefits everybody, not just screen reader users. The community, for some reason, still sees inclusive design as an add on rather than a product that is built inclusively from the very beginning. Inclusive design helps many without disabilities, as well. Everybody wins.

Yet, inclusive design isn’t a thing to aspire to in the open source community. Not on a global scale, anyway.

I’ve got to be honest. I’m apathetic to the open source community. It’s a nice idea, but, really, why should I care that Nextcloud respects my privacy if I can’t even add a calendar event using a screen reader, for example.

All of this boils down to, if ditching the open source philosophy is what it takes for there to be change in the community at large, I fully applaud W3C’s decision to prioritize accessibility over open source ideals. Many others should do the same.

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Robert Kingett

Robert Kingett is a gay blind journalist, and author, with many publications in magazines, anthologies, and blogs. He has judged many writing contests and has won many awards for his writings and advocacy.

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