Drupal Accessibility as an Example



June 27, 2011

I took a great opportunity to go to Guelph to both participate in and present to the 2011 Accessibility Conference. I was able to meet with a number of great accessibility professionals from Southern Ontario who were gathered for this event at the University of Guelph.  I missed the A11yCamp which Sean Yo organized and also to Derek Featherstone's HTML5/CSS3 training, but sent two of my team to it.

In thinking about what to present to this audience I had rethink a few things.  In presenting to Drupal audiences I had to go into depth about accessibility and work to educate the audience about the various ways that their sites are perceived & operated.  Many of the people in the audience had more experience in this area than I did so this wouldn't have been much of a benefit.  There were a surprising number of Drupal people in attendance as many universities in Ontario are now using it as their default CMS.  That being said, I didn't feel that there would be enough to justify a talk focusing on this one system.  

I decided to focus the presentation what can be learned from Drupal that can be applied to any system.  There are best practices in accessibility that have been defined in Drupal and that I do hope are adopted by other systems.  I figured it would be worth pulling out some of the highlights from Drupal 7's enhancements that I think still stand as best practices and that are generic enough that they could be emulated by others.  I wanted to use this session to talk about ways the ways that with greater collaboration we could take and improve these best practices for all systems.

I was hoping that the video would be available online right now, but for now I'll summarize my presentation notes & provide a link to the slides.

I introduced the concept of open source and explained how good open source communities facilitate users & developers discussions about real needs. I explained how it is the best way to keep up with changes on the Web such as:

    • Interactive forms & membership areas
    • Mobile web & responsive web design
    • Social Networking & Web 2.0
    • Placing content closer to the author

I discussed some of the reasons that brought us to choosing Drupal:

    • Critical mass - Drupal drives 1% of the Internet
    • Used by government, education, industry & NGOs - The White House, NDP.ca, Buy & Sell.gc.ca
    • Very flexible infrastructure
    • Support for standards based development
    • Strong community of developers with thousands of professional web shops

 Most folks weren't familiar with what we added to Drupal, so wanted to highlight just some of the enhancements:

    • CSS display:none - hidden, invisible & on focus
    • Enhancements to forms API - centralization of form implementations
    • Big barrier removed from Drupal 6 - drag & drop
    • Skip to main added to all core themes
    • Adding limited WAI-ARIA
    • User testing for installation, development & administration

I also wanted to highlight the scale of the initiative:

    • Making accessibility a priority where it wasn't 3 years ago
    • Almost 400 people contributed to issues
    • Constant race to keep up with core developments like Overlay
    • Understanding of project lifecycle in IT choices
    • Managing design conflicts with usability & performance

 This involved a great deal of work to raise awareness in the Drupal community and to work with the realities of Assistive Technology:

    • Extensive education about WCAG 2.0 including many presentations
    • Mitigating imperfect assistive technology options - VoiceOver & Snow Leopard
    • Building best practice implementations by default
    • Accessibility & internationalization (RTL)

It wouldn't have happened though if it weren't for:

    • A supportive core development team
    • Accessibility advocates working together
    • Persistent reminders, outreach, listening
    • Advocates who could contribute patches
    • Having a very engaged blind developer to personalize & implement changes
    • Global mounting pressure for greater accessibility 

I also wanted to touch on the fact that this is a moving target and by no means is Drupal perfect:

  • There are only a limited number changes that can be made to Drupal 7 now that it is released
  • The accessible helper module & other module/theme enhancements can help, but need additional work
  • Drupal 8 development process now includes an accessibility gate
  • Core themes and colour contrast need to be reviewed & rethought
  • Review of the forms API for more complicated elements
  • Process to check for WCAG 2.0 AA
  • Building for the mobile web
  • Adding new processes to check for WCAG 2.0 AA before release
  • New attention to internationalization

This is in many ways a reflection of what is happening on the Internet with a move within the W3C to formalize & then adopt ATAG, WAI-ARIA & HTML5.  The maturity of the mobile web, there are now so many mobile browsers in use, but the Internet is still based on the desktop.  People expect the web to be delivered to them in a more personalized, localized fashion and this has implications for accessibility.  

The advantage of all of this work is that for accessibility is that there is now:

  • A great library of code/comments to review
  • A big industry leader pushing others CMS's to enhance their accessibility
  • A large platform with which to engage AT vendors
  • Greater awareness about inclusive design
  • Fewer "trade secrets" with accessibility industry

All of the information here is available for people to enhance & modify.  There were lots of accessibility experts involved in the conference, but I'm not sure how many were engaged in code communities like Drupal and were given space to contribute their enhancements back.  

I wanted to leave folks with a sense that we need to work together to address the challenges of accessibility: 

  • The Internet is changing fast 
  • Your experience matters
  • Find a community & start contributing somewhere
  • Read through Drupal's accessibility issue queue & comment
  • Post questions and be prepared to be wrong
  • Become involved in Twitter #a11y community

I'll post a link to the video of the presentation when it becomes available.

About The Author

Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth.