The a11y Monthly: Contributing to WordPress to spread accessibility culture

People call me an accessibility expert, but I don’t see myself as an expert. I do know quite a few things about HTML5, WAI-ARIA, browsers, and screen readers. I live in a small country, which is well known for its arts, food, and fashion. However, it is not famous for its information technology industry. So how is it possible I’m contributing to one of the largest open-source projects in the world today? Plus, working at Yoast, where accessibility matters a great deal? In this post, I’ll share my personal journey.

How it all started

I was born and bred in Rome, Italy. Back in 2001, I moved to Milan, where I got my first job in the web industry. Since then I always worked for small companies. There were no opportunities to work in an international environment. Or even to establish connections with businesses and development teams abroad.

At the beginning of 2004, the Italian government approved the first law about web content accessibility of the public administration offices sites. At that time, I was working as project manager, had no great coding skills and web accessibility was a mystery to me. I started learning. At first, I studied the legal requirements, then the W3C specifications. After that, I started doing research and trying to do my best to make our projects as accessible as possible.

It’s a process I’d recommend to every web developer and designer. You have to understand accessibility, even the most basic principles; it leads to a better understanding of web standards. Introducing web standards in your workflow makes you a better coder and designer. In the long run, the quality of your code and projects increases and your professional skills grow.

Why accessibility became important to me

As individuals, we need a job to put bread on our tables. Companies live to make a profit. But is that enough, especially when you can do something more? As I was diving more and more into accessibility, I started to understand that we can make a difference with our day to day job. We can help individuals to access information and services that could be inaccessible otherwise. This new feeling that we can help people changed everything for me. It was and still is, like putting some higher level of ethics in my job.

Since I was a kid, I’ve always had bad eyesight and aging doesn’t make things better. My personal condition helped me to understand the difficulties many people face every day on the web, to do even the most basic tasks. It’s only natural for me to feel empathy for people who struggle to use the web.

As humans, it’s pretty common that at some point in our life we look back to make some review of our personal achievements. I guess we do that several times during our little journey on this little planet. Trust me, when you are over 45 like me, you tend to be brutally honest in this regard. I’m convinced that one of the best things we can do while we’re here, is to improve things, even a little bit. I found out I wanted to do something more, and have the opportunity to do it with my job. So I started to look around me.

Why I started contributing to WordPress

As Sir Tim Berners-Lee said, we can build a web that is “accessible to all, one that empowers all of us to achieve our dignity, rights, and potential as humans.” Inspiring words, don’t you think? Web accessibility is a fundamental part of this philosophy. WordPress’ mission is: “to democratize publishing through Open Source, GPL software.” That sounded like a promising match to me.

I knew WordPress and also used it in my job, but never thought to contribute to the project. WordPress is empowering a significant part of the web, and it has a great community as well. But, the accessibility culture needs to be communicated, and awareness needs to grow. I soon realized WordPress was the perfect vessel to maximize the impact of the message I was trying to deliver.

My involvement in the WordPress accessibility team

In 2013, I started to follow the WordPress weekly development meetings when they still happened on IRC. I spent months following the meetings before participating. That helped me to get a grasp of the organization. I understood who the most active contributors were, how the contribution process was organized and how decisions were made.

It also helped me to grasp the history and background of WordPress, which I find necessary in a project of this scale. It’s something I’d recommend to anyone who wants to become an active contributor. Take your time to get to know the project before participating. Take your time to get to know the team, because contributing to WordPress is more about people and communication than code.

Then I discovered a WordPress accessibility team existed. They had weekly meetings to discuss accessibility issues. I started following the team meetings, and I met a group of very passionate people. I must say I owe everything to Rian Rietveld, who was already active on the team. She convinced me, pushing and pushing, to take part in the meetings. She was important for me to overcome my impostor syndrome.

At some point, I was crazy enough to work on my first patch for WordPress. I can’t count the number of times I’ve reviewed that patch to make sure it was good enough. I’ve studied countless of other patches and commits to learn about coding standards and best practices. In July 2014, I committed my first patch to WordPress: #28897. It was an incredible feeling. I’ve kept contributing since then, trying to do my best.

How to become a core committer

Many people wonder how to become valued and trusted enough to get commit access to WordPress. Some people strive to become a committer. That wasn’t my goal, though. I never aimed at that and, ironically, that’s probably one of the reasons why I’m a committer now. If you’re interested in this, I’d recommend an excellent post by Andrew Nacin on this topic. Andrew describes what the qualities of a great WordPress contributor are.

For me, becoming a guest committer was a complete surprise. At some point, someone pinged me and said: “Hey, we were thinking of giving you commit access.” The curious thing is, since we all live in different parts of this planet, we never met in person before. I’m happy they trusted me, that means my communication was good enough.

Lesson learned: getting permanent commit access to one of the largest open source projects in the world is not a matter of coding abilities. Trust me: I’m not the best coder in the world. Since the WordPress leads decided to expand the number of people with direct commit access, it’s more a matter of trust and quality of your contributions, which doesn’t consist of only code. Try to be a responsible person that helps. Plus, have a little patience.

Join the accessibility team

Things are going well. The accessibility team is doing a great job, and WordPress is more accessible now than three years ago. Of course, as in every large-scale project, there are challenging issues to solve. Some improvements can’t happen in a short period. There’s still a lot of work to do!

Coding is important: the accessibility team is a small team. We need more skilled coders with good accessibility knowledge. If you’re interested in improving the WordPress accessibility, please join us!

Even if you’re not a coder, you can help in many ways. A few years ago, things like no-javascript fallback, internationalization, responsiveness, and backwards compatibility were the main concerns during the WordPress development cycle. People had accessibility on their minds, but it was often left behind.

Today, accessibility is one of the main concerns for every new WordPress feature. There are well-established Accessibility Coding Standards. For me, this is one of the most promising things: we’re spreading accessibility culture and awareness. You can help with that!

Want to help?

Yoast wants to make WordPress as accessible as possible. We work tirelessly to make our plugins the shining example of accessible products. It’s a process based on continuous improvements, testing, iteration, and development.

We’re always open to feedback and contributions. Please do not hesitate to let us hear your voice and please do report any issues or potential improvements you notice in our products.

Coming up next!

3 Responses to The a11y Monthly: Contributing to WordPress to spread accessibility culture

  1. Suzie
    Suzie  • 7 years ago

    Thank you for sharing!

  2. Thabo Tswana
    Thabo Tswana  • 7 years ago

    Thank you, Andrea! Your post is very inspiring and also eye-opening. So many of us don’t realize the numerous ways that you can actually contribute to WordPress

  3. monica
    monica  • 7 years ago

    I really enjoy learning about the path people have taken to discover ways to contribute to the community at large while loving what they do! Thank you for the story!