Welcome to Press This, the WordPress community podcast from WMR. Each episode features guests from around the community and discussions of the largest issues facing WordPress developers. The following is a transcription of the original recording.
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Doc Pop: You’re listening to Press This, a WordPress community podcast on WMR. Each week we spotlight members of the WordPress community. I’m your host, Doc Pop. I support the WordPress community through my role at WP Engine and my contributions on TorqueMag.io. You can subscribe to Press This on RedCircle, iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcasting app. You can also download episodes directly from WMR.fm.
Today, we’re diving into a topic that is at the forefront of the digital landscape, kind of literally—web accessibility. It’s a subject that affects every website and every user and accessible sites can lose your readers or customers and just defeat the purpose of why you put your site online.
Joining us today is Amber Hinds, the founder and CEO at Equalize Digital and the organizer of the WordPress Accessibility Meetup. Amber’s work has had a big impact helping major universities, government agencies, and various organizations create inclusive online experiences. And her company’s newest tool, the Accessibility Checker is a powerful plugin that scans, monitors, and reports on the accessibility status of websites in real time, ensuring that content themes and plugins remain user-friendly for everyone. Amber, welcome to the show.
Amber Hinds: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
DP: I’m excited to have you. let’s start off by just hearing your origin story. How did you get into WordPress?
AH: Well, I started as a mom blogger on WordPress.com and then I sort of transitioned over to .org when I wanted to be able to make more changes and have more control. Cause way back when I was on WordPress in 2009 on WordPress.com, you couldn’t do any theme customization or plugin installation. And I grew a freelance business just out of friends initially asking me for help with their WordPress websites.
DP: I love hearing about the mommy bloggers that are still in the space. I, definitely think that that was kind of a magical moment of internetness where websites were so accessible and so easy that, we had all these folks grew up joining. WordPress community just to be able to talk about things that were important to them in their lives.
And I think a lot of that may be moved to Facebook or social media, you know, and that’s kind of a shame, but I’m happy to see folks like you have transitioned to staying in the space and making the space better for other folks like that. So yeah, thanks for that. Well, why don’t we hear a little bit about your company, Equalize Digital. What do you all do there?
AH: Yeah, so we are a certified B Corporation and we specialize in WordPress accessibility. So we do accessibility audits and remediation that we have in packaged plans that we do for people on sort of a recurring revenue basis. And then we do accessible development for enterprise organizations, and we have a product, Equalize Digital Accessibility Checker, which scans WordPress websites for accessibility problems and flags those, like the way you’d see in an SEO tool like a Yoast or a RankMath, something like that, that provides reports on the Post Edit screen to help people make content more SEO-friendly. Well, we do the same checking, but for accessibility.
DP: And it’s important to note, I think people have already picked this up, but this isn’t one of those tools that claims to make your site accessible if it wasn’t before, this is a tool because, those tools have dark histories of maybe not working the way they are suggested to with overlays and things like that, but this is a tool that’s really, like you said, it’s more of like a Yoast checker.Yoast doesn’t make your page better at SEO, it shows you how to make your page better at SEO, and that’s kind of what’s happening here.
AH: Yep, that’s correct. There’s no frontend impact by our tool, which also has the great benefit of not having any negative performance impact. It’s really a tool that developers and designers and content creators can use to better create content, check for accessibility faster, and to learn accessibility. So we have a lot of documentation that we’ve linked off to and things to help people learn more about how to either code or enter content in an accessible way.
DP: So if I installed the accessibility checker, there’s different levels you can talk about, like what you get at the free and the premium levels, but what is the basic thing that the tool is going to provide for me? What’s my experience going to be like on the backend?
AH: Sure. So, we actually have both a backend and a frontend view with our plugin. The free version, which is available on WordPress.org, it allows unlimited scanning of posts and pages. So, if you have a very basic website, then you could potentially just use the free version forever and there’d be no reason to upgrade.
We do have a paid version as well with various tiers and that includes scanning of custom post types and some other features we could get into if you want to. But basically what either the free or the pro plugin will do is it puts a meta box down below the content area on the post or page edit screen. It scans, it provides a summary, and then there’s a “Details” tab where you can go in and see each individual error or warning that we have found on the page, and it helps you to find them. What we released over the summer, though, which we’re really excited about, it was funded by NASA, because our plugin is being used on the NASA website, is a frontend view of our plugin.
So anyone who is interested can download it. A logged-in administrator has the ability to toggle a button on the frontend of a post or page and you can go through the errors and warnings on the frontend. It’ll put a dashed pink box around the element because sometimes it’s hard to just see a code snippet and know where do I go to edit this thing. And so that’s what the idea behind the frontend view.
DP: That’s so cool. So that’s apremium feature, one of the small business and higher levels or…
AH: No, actually, this was a conversation we had with NASA. They’re using the plugin and they wanted something that would make it easier for very non-technical content creators and writers that edit content on the NASA website to find problems. And so we created this, they funded it, and we ended up deciding that instead of building it just for NASA, we were going to release it in our free plugin. So you can use that feature for free, and it really goes down to both us being a certified B Corp and part of NASA’s mission is to give back to humanity. So sort of like Velcro came out of NASA, we’ve been joking that this frontend feature also came out of NASA.
DP: That’s cool. That’s what they need. And so when we’re talking about issues, I’m assuming low contrast font on, you know, like something that’s hard to read, things like that, or are we talking about traps like mouse, uh, I think the term is mouse traps, where you can’t navigate the site unless improvements are made. I’m sure I’m flubbing that description, but can you kind of tell us about like what sort of things we’re looking for here?
AH: So we have over 40 different checks. We divide them up into what we call errors and warnings. Errors are things that we 100 percent know are a problem. So for example, Ambiguous link text, so the words “learn more” or the word “here” that is just linked and has no meaning. We know that’s a problem because nobody really knows why they’d follow that link. What am I going to learn more about?
So that’s an example of something that is an error. It’s definitively a problem. It needs to be fixed. And then we also have warnings. So things like, images that are missing alternative text, that’s a warning because in some situations it is actually correct to leave alternative text empty if an image is purely decorative and you don’t really want to slow people down by providing a description of a flourish, for example.
So that’s something where it requires a human to assess it. We can flag the thing, but a human needs to look at it and make a decision. So we have more than 40 different errors and warnings. But what is important to know, is just like there are some things that we can flag, but require a human assessment, there are just some things that an automated testing tool can’t find. And so we provide a lot of education around manual testing as well. So you can use our tool to really quickly tell you all of the images that are missing alternative text or all of the pages that have headings that have been entered out of order. And on a very large website, let’s say you’re working on a website with maybe even hundreds of thousands of pages, you can have the plugin scan all of those for you and then you can figure out where you need to drill down and go in and take a look. So it can really speed up testing.
But from a true accessibility standpoint, you also need to go to the frontend and look for those keyboard traps like you were talking about, which is literally going through the website, hitting the tab key, and making sure you can get to every interactive element, and you can use the website fully without a mouse.
And of course, we always recommend people turn on screen readers and test with screen readers as well.
DP: That’s a good spot for us to take a quick break here. When we come back, we’re going to continue our interview with Amber Hines about WordPress accessibility meetup groups and how to learn more about improving accessibility on your sites. So stay tuned after the short break.
Welcome back to Press This, a WordPress community podcast. I’m your host, Doc Pop. Today, I’m talking to Amber Hinds, the CEO at Equalize Digital and the founder and organizer of WordPress Accessibility Meetups, as well as I think a few other
events. Amber, can you tell us a little bit about the WordPress Accessibility Meetup?
AH: Sure, the WordPress Accessibility Meetup is an official meetup in the WordPress Meetup program. It actually, fun fact, is one of the first, but now is not the only meetup that was designed not to be city based. So it used to be that WordPress meetups were always just city based. So I’m in Georgetown, so I could go to the Georgetown WordPress meetup if I wanted to, and a couple of years ago, I started to think I really wanted to learn more about accessibility, but there’s not many web accessibility folks in my town. It’s not actually a super big town. And so I submitted an application, and there was a big community discussion about whether or not they were going to allow meetups that are purely virtual, and we were excited to get WordPress Accessibility Meetup approved as one of the first topic-based meetups.
I think there’s also one on hosting now, and BlackPress is another one that exists out there, but we meet twice a month. Thursday at 10 a.m. U.S. central time, and the third Monday at 7 p.m. U.S. central time, so that we have good coverage of folks around the world. They’re all on Zoom. We find sponsors to help us cover the cost of live captioning, so we always have captioning that is typed by a human at every meetup.
And there’s just a bunch of different topics related to website accessibility. Sometimes they’re code-based, sometimes they’re content-based or design-based, all different things.
DP: And were you also one of the organizers of WordPress Accessibility Day?
AH: Yes, so WordPress Accessibility Day, I am actually the president of the board. We’re a separate nonprofit organization. It’s independent from WordPress Community Foundation. It’s a 24-hour event that runs every fall, and this year, in 2023, this was our third event, and we were really excited. We had over 2, 000 people register and attend in a single track that goes for 24 hours.
DP: I was one of those 2,000, it was a really well-run event, kudos to all the folks behind that and to you for organizing that. And I think one of the things I kind of wanted to get at in this interview, I wanted to ask about if people…so you have a tool to help people kind of figure out how to find accessibility. If you want to be more proactive and learn about best trends and best practices for how to keep their sites accessible before they launch instead of after, how do you recommend people keep
track of this?
AH: Yeah, so of course, attending meetups is a great way. We also record all of them and we post them on our website. If you go to equalizedvisual.com slash meetup, you can find all of the recordings from every WordPress meetup that there has been on accessibility. Sorry, WordPress accessibility meetup. And then, another way, is there is a Facebook group that we run, WordPress Accessibility Facebook group, and that’s a good place to connect or ask questions with people. I think one of the big things is just don’t be afraid to get started. It doesn’t have to be perfect. I think accessibility is very much a journey. It’s not something that happens overnight. It’s small things that you do over time. So you could install the plugin and start working on making some small fixes. You could make a point of saying, hey, every time I build a new website, I’m going to use WordPress and check the tab key and make sure that I can submit all my forms and use the carousel or expand accordions and read the content without
using a mouse.
So sometimes the best way to learn is to just dive in and start trying to figure it out. But I think the Facebook group and coming to the meetup is another way to really connect with people if you’re not sure how. And then I’ve been working on putting out some content through The Admin Bar. It’s the Accessibility Weekly that is every week. I post a post about one specific piece of accessibility. So that’s another way that you can go and learn more.
DP: And you’ve been in the space long enough and in this particular topic long enough to maybe give me some feedback on how I feel like WordPress has started having an accessibility conversation more noticeably around the time that Gutenberg came out was, when I feel like it was a thing that became a gospel within the community or definitely a higher focus thing. And I’m wondering if you’ve seen that, and also wondering how you feel WordPress as a core product right now is doing in terms of being accessible for users.
AH: I have definitely noticed in the last two years a pretty big shift in how aware the WordPress community and developers and agencies who use WordPress are about accessibility. I think it’s partially tied to the increased legislation that has been happening in the United States. Also, a pretty big jump in that around the world post COVID, and in Europe, there’s the European Accessibility Act, which has a cliff, and it’s going to start doing enforcement in June 2025. So, there’s a lot of legislation, which is making people more aware of it, sort of like GDPR forced a lot of people to get on the privacy bandwagon.
I think the other thing is, is there’s a lot of really great advocates out there who have been doing a lot to speak, and raise awareness about the importance of it. So, you know, you mentioned Gutenberg and how a lot of people became more aware of it around the time Gutenberg was introduced, well, that was really thanks to WP Campus, which is a nonprofit organization that has a Slack group and they run a conference targeted on WordPress and higher ed. And they commissioned and paid for an accessibility audit of Gutenberg because there were so many concerns about how inaccessible Gutenberg was. And that audit really made a lot more people aware of accessibility.
From a where we are standpoint, all of the problems in that audit have been addressed, but there is still a long way to go. Especially in the block editor, for accessibility, there are parts of it that can be extremely difficult for particularly screen reader users or people who use only a keyboard to be able to edit their websites. I think we really need to see more effort put in there. Currently, we only have one developer who is sponsored to work on the Accessibility Team, meaning he’s paid and he’s only paid part time, that’s Joe Dolson. And I would really love to see more companies realizing how important it is and if they have paid contributors to WordPress or even if they don’t and they’re considering sponsoring contributors to WordPress to sponsor some to work on the Accessibility Team because there are a lot of issues out there that just need a developer to be available and help them solve the problems and get them wrapped up.
DP: And you mentioned WP Campus and the work they did there. I just wanted to give a huge shout out to Rachel Cherry. I remember Rachel was definitely leading a lot of awareness within the community. And I have to say it was folks like Rachel and, you know, folks, like yourself doing the work that you do that put this more in my mind. It’s not that I have like a giant site, I’m not NASA or anything, but I definitely think a lot more about this now, even on social media, I use alt descriptions. And a lot of this comes down to, I’ve just found that accessibility doesn’t necessarily, I’m getting a little preachy or whatever, I’m sure we’ve all heard this before, but accessibility doesn’t just mean making the web accessible for some individuals. It really, you know, higher contrast fonts and alt descriptions and making your site mobile responsive, right? So that you can access it on, on different things. These are the sort of things we’re talking about that really just make your site and make the web better for everyone, not just, you know, thinking about like, oh, some individuals need these improvements. No, this is really, if we think about this right? Hopefully we’re just making everything better for everybody.
AH: Yeah, I mean, accessibility is very much part of just having a good UX or user experience. And, and as you mentioned, there are so many things, and even in our day-to-day life, like, we leave the web. Something that a lot of people maybe don’t think about or even notice is they use our curb cuts or ramps that make it so you don’t have to step up onto a curb. And those were originally created for wheelchair users, however, they’re very handy if you’re pushing your child in a stroller, or pushing a shopping cart full of groceries, or pulling a heavy suitcase behind you. And there are a ton of web features that are just like that, and I mean, I don’t know about you, but as I get older, I notice there are websites where I sometimes have to zoom in in order to read them, particularly on my phone. And every once in a while, I’ll encounter one where the developer has disabled zoom. And I just leave because I’m like, well, I don’t want to sit here squinting, trying to read this. It’s frustrating for me. We’re all in the spectrum of going from typically abled to potentially needing some sort of device or personal assistance in order to engage with the web. And I think that as developers, we want to keep that in mind, and realize that it really does help everyone. And this is a way that we can make the world a better place.
DP: And on that note, we are gonna take one more break and when we come back we’ll pick up our conversation and focus on some new improvements for the Accessibility Checker plugin that might be of interest to small businesses and agencies. So stay tuned after the short break.
Welcome back to Press This, a WordPress community podcast. We are wrapping up our conversation with Amber Hinds. We’ve talked about the WordPress Accessibility Meetups and how folks can learn more about improving their sites and learning about accessibility. And earlier on the show, we talked about Equalize Digital’s Accessibility Checker plugin. And I just kind of want to dive in a little bit more here. I’m on the pricing page, I signed up today. I installed the plugin at the personal level, just to kind of check it out, but there’s some cool stuff at the small business and agency levels. For instance, I saw at the small business level, there’s a 30-minute accessibility consultation, as well as two accessibility office hours each month that you help out with. I just kind of want to hear a little bit more about some of these features that you might offer to agencies and small businesses at the higher levels.
AH: Yeah, so at the small business and the agency tiers, we do offer a personalized 30-minute consultation, which is actually a phone call or Zoom call with me, and we get on, and it’s kind of neat because I don’t have a script. We do what works best for that particular business or agency, which means sometimes, they’ve already, typically, they’ve already installed the plugin, and there’s some issues, and we might just spend time talking about how to fix certain issues. The goal with those is really to give people, get you up and running with the plugin, make sure that you’re not seeing anything weird, and also provide, you know, that information, because since our tool is not a quote fixer, right, you still have to do some of the work, there are times when you run into things and you’re maybe not sure the best approach in order to fix it. And so we do that then.
We also do those in the office hours. So office hours happen twice a month. And they’re grouped. They’re not recorded. But multiple people can come, which is nice. We have people come sometimes just because they want to listen in and learn from other people. But it’s an opportunity to sort of be face-to-face and talk about accessibility, some of the problems that are being found and the best ways to fix them.
The other thing that we offer that’s relatively new at the small business in the agency tier is we have an add-on that is included with that, which is audit history. So the free version of the plugin and the base Pro version of the plugin are just going to show you current status. But a lot of agencies and developers need to have the ability to report on accessibility changes over time. And so that’s what this audit history plugin or add-on for the main plugin is. It saves counts at certain intervals and allows you to view them in a table and in a graph and ideally see improvement over time and be able to report to your clients or internal stakeholders about how accessibility has been improving on the website.
DP: Well, that’s cool. I really appreciate chatting with you today. And again, I just have to say thanks for the work you did with the WordPress Accessibility Day and with the Accessibility Meetups, really appreciate that. If people want to follow you or learn more about what you’re working on, where would you like to send them?
AH: Sure, so our website is equalizedigital.com. If you go to equalizedigital.com/meetup, that’s the best way to learn more about all of the meetups, you can see upcoming and watch recordings. I am most active on Twitter, so if you’re a social media person, you can find me on X/ Twitter at @HeyAmberHinds. It’s HEY Amber, H-I-N-D-S.
DP: Well, thanks again for joining us today, Amber, and thanks to everyone for listening to Press This, a WordPress community podcast on WMR.
You can follow our adventures on Twitter at the Torque Mag. That’s the Torque Mag on Twitter. You can also go to TorqueMag.io to find more articles as well as transcribed versions of each of these podcasts after they come out. You can subscribe to the show on RedCircle, iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite. Podcasting apps. You can also download it directly from WMR.fm. I’m your host, Dr. Popular. I support the WordPress community through my role at WP Engine, and I love spotlighting members of that community each and every week on Press This.