The Ultimate Guide to Accessibility and WordPress

So you want to make an accessible WordPress website? Congratulations – your site will be available to the widest possible audience!

Not sure why accessibility is valuable? Accessible sites have benefits including faster load speed, better SEO and being good for PR. Plus making an accessible site is just the right thing to do.

15% of the population worldwide have disabilities. So thinking about accessibility is not just the webmaster’s responsibility. Everyone from website owners to digital project managers, designers, editors, content writers and anyone else involved in the website should think about web accessibility.

Some common issues that need to be addressed when creating an accessible website include making text screen reader-friendly, including appropriate alt text for images, ensuring optimal  color contrast, adding captions to videos, and making sure that your website is keyboard navigable.

As you read on, keep in mind that there is more to WordPress accessibility than compliance, and the following tips will help ensure you are well on your way.

Accessibility-Ready WordPress Themes

A great place to start for accessibility-ready WordPress themes is the WordPress Theme Directory on wordpress.org.

Screenshot of WordPress Theme Directory on WordPress.org
WordPress Theme Directory (WordPress.org)

The WordPress Theme Directory provides a Feature Filter that allows users to search through its database of free themes for accessibility-ready themes.

WordPress Theme Directory highlighting Feature Filter and Accessibility Ready filter option.
Use the WordPress Theme Directory’s Feature Filter to find accessibility ready themes.

A search of ‘Accessibility Ready’ themes in the WordPress Theme Directory bring up dozens of accessible-ready themes. You can also use the Feature Filter to search for ‘Accessibility Ready’ themes sorted by Layout, Features, or Subject and further refine and narrow your search using other filter parameters, or by typing in keywords into the search bar, such as “WCAG”.

Screenshot of WordPress Theme Directory results for accessibility-ready WordPress themes.
WordPress Theme Directory results for accessibility-ready WordPress themes.

For WordPress themes to be included in the Theme Directory with the “Accessibility Ready” tag, the theme must comply with over a dozen accessibility requirements set by the WordPress Theme Review team.

Screenshot of WordPress theme from WordPress Theme Directory with accessibility tag.
Themes must meet WordPress Theme Directory accessibility requirements to use accessibility tag.

Required and recommended accessibility guidelines include keyboard navigation, controls, skip links, content links, forms, headings, contrasts, images, media, and screen reader text (discussed further below).

Screenshot of WordPress theme handbook accessibility requirements.
WordPress theme handbook accessibility requirements.

Themes that do not meet the Theme Review team’s criteria, are not given the ‘accessibility ready’ tag in the WordPress Theme Directory.

If you choose to use freemium, premium, or paid WordPress themes, make sure that your theme has built-in accessibility features. And if you decide to build a custom website for your business or organization, consult with the web developer first to make sure that any accessibility concerns are discussed and reviewed before starting your project. A good starting point if you are building your own theme is the Underscores starter theme, which follows web standards and has a number of accessibility features built-in.

It’s important to note that while themes tagged as being accessibility-ready on WordPress.org have not only fulfilled the usual theme review guidelines but passed additional accessibility checks, such as those modeled on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) level AA, using an accessible theme does not absolve you of the responsibility of making your content, site navigation and other areas of your site accessible.

Screenshot of WordPress Theme Review Team's accessibility notice.
WordPress Theme Review Team’s accessibility notice.

As highlighted by the Theme Review team in the Accessibility section of their handbook,

“Themes labeled as accessibility-ready have met the required guidelines listed here, and should not be construed to meet any level of formal accessibility requirements.”

WordPress Theme Accessibility Features Checklist

So what features should a good accessibility-ready WordPress theme have?

Here’s everything we’re going to cover. Click on the link to be taken to that specific section.

Appropriate Alt Text for Images
Keyboard Accessible Links and Menus
Visible Focus Styles
Color Contrast
Native HTML for Buttons and Links
Skip Links
Semantic HTML Headings
Screen Reader Text
No Autoplaying Media
Explicit Form Labels
ARIA Landmark Roles
Clear Typography
Things Not Allowed In Accessibility Themes
Positive Tabindex Values
Accesskeys
Useful Resources and Accessibility Testing Tools

Appropriate Alt Text for Images

Screen readers need alt text to help visually impaired or users with learning disabilities understand images included in the content.

Any inline images included in your theme should have alt text. This includes featured images. Even if the code is present to display alt attributes, however, appropriately crafted alternative text still needs to be input for those images.

Background images do not require an alt attribute. Purely decorative images like background images and other non-text content should be added via CSS so assistive technologies can ignore it.

Alt Text: Yes

The default WordPress theme comes with built-in accessibility-ready features.

In the Twenty Nineteen theme, for example, when you specify a page as your site’s home page, WordPress automatically creates an alternative text using the page title.

Screenshot of WordPress Theme 2019 With Featured Image alt tag highlighted.
WordPress Theme 2019 with Featured Image alt tag highlighted.

In the Twenty Seventeen theme, the header image alt text matches the site title.

The Featured image alt text is whatever the user has inputted.

Twenty Seventeen theme’s implementation of alt text.
Twenty Seventeen theme’s implementation of alt text.

If there’s no alt text present, the alt text defaults to alt =””. This is actually quite sensible, because a blank alt attribute is better than irrelevant alt text.

To learn more about using alt tags for accessibility, check out our comprehensive guide on how to create perfect image alt tags for accessibility in WordPress.

Some users with mobility impairments can’t use a mouse. They rely on the keyboard (or keyboard-like devices) to navigate the interactive features of a page. The Tab key is used to move forward through elements., and Shift+Tab to go back.

You should be able to access the following by tabbing through the page:

  • Links
  • Menus
  • Buttons
  • Form fields

Often with menus, the top-level menu items will be keyboard accessible, but dropdown submenus will not!

Example: Accessible Drop-Down Menus

Gently theme implements dropdown menus in an accessible way, as they can be reached by keyboard as well as mouse.

Gently theme has a keyboard accessible dropdown menu showing keyboard focus.
Gently theme has a keyboard accessible dropdown menu showing keyboard focus.

If creating your own theme, Underscores has keyboard accessible drop-down menus built-in, or you can try this tutorial: Creating Accessible Drop-Down Menus.

Visible Focus Styles (Focus Indicators)

Keyboard users need something visual to show them where they are on the page when tabbing through. If there’s no focus style, it’s hard for them to tell what they are interacting with.

Try using the keyboard to tab through the next web page you visit.

Can you tell which link is which?

Themes often reset the default focus style. You will often see this in style.css files:

Unfortunately, this code reduces accessibility and developers often don’t think to set their own focus style.

The focus style may include a color background – but it must also meet color contrast guidelines.

Visible Focus Styles: Yes

The Penguin theme implements focus styles in different ways, but it’s easy to tell which link is the current one.

Penguin accessibility ready theme showing white on blue postmeta keyboard focus style.
Penguin accessibility ready theme showing white on blue postmeta keyboard focus style.
Penguin accessibility ready theme with link keyboard focus style showing an outline.
Penguin accessibility ready theme with link keyboard focus style showing an outline.

Sufficient Color Contrast

People with a vision impairment may struggle to read text on a low contrast background. Even reading on a laptop in bright sunlight can prove tricky for someone without sight problems.

The recommendation is the same as that in WCAG 2.0 level AA: a contrast ratio of 4.5:1 for normal text and 3:1 for large text (defined as 14 point (typically 18.66px) and bold or larger, or 18 point (typically 24px) or larger), and a contrast ratio of at least 3:1 for graphics and user interface components (such as form input borders). Level AAA requires a contrast ratio of at least 7:1 for normal text and 4.5:1 for large text.

Colour Contrast: No

The WAVE WebAIM web accessbility tool reveals that ZBlackbeard theme has many areas of low color contrast.

ZBlackbeard theme colour contrast errors highlighted in red by WebAIM’s WAVE tool.
ZBlackbeard theme colour contrast errors highlighted in red by WebAIM’s WAVE tool.

Incorrect markup will disable your users from using custom controls. For example, a user might not be able to tab to or press a custom button.

If you want to make a button behave like a button, the simplest way is to use the

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