Content Management Systems (CMSs) and Accessibility

Content Management Systems (CMSs) let you create websites without having to write software or know much about web technologies -- they separate the task of creating and managing the content of your site from the task of building and maintaining the underlying structure. This lets 'average people' set up and manage a site, and makes it easy for contributors to write and comment. Drupal, Joomla!, WordPress, and Plone are popular CMSs. This article provides an overview of CMSs and accessibility, and how to get started.

Note: this article does not cover the specific types of CMSs used widely in education, called learning management systems, such as Blackboard and Elluminate.

How CMSs Work

CMSs are all about simplicity, and they use 2 techniques to achieve their goal of simplification; both have accessibility implications.

Themes

Themes control the style of the site. When you select a theme, you are selecting its fonts, colors, layout, and all related functions, automatically. There are a lot of accessibility issues embedded in these choices, such as color contrast and font size. Other features are less obvious. For example, a theme can actually render the main content of a page before it renders the menus, sidebars, etc. ('content first'). This makes a 'skip-nav' link unnecessary for screen reader users, as the screen reader does not have to travel through the repetitive navigational material to get to 'the good stuff'.

CMSs come with a default theme and a few additional choices that have been optimized for attractiveness and to show off the features of the CMS. However, there are thousands of available themes, and hundreds of designers who will build a custom one for you. Themes use the same Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) language as regular HTML websites do, which makes them easy to modify and customize. Some themes are especially designed for accessibility, or are promoted that way. Usually this means that they have at least been tested for compatibility with the major screen readers, but it may mean more.

Note that popular themes from one CMS have usually been 'ported' to other CMSs, because they use similar technologies, so you may be able to use one you like no matter where it originated.

Modules

Modules are the functional units of the CMS, the software components that control how the site operates. Modules control who can edit content on the site, how the menus will work, the terms that can be used to index articles, etc. Each CMS comes with basic modules, and it's possible to run a site using only those. But most sites need special functionality such as media players, a way to send email to members, or intelligent searching. Like themes, most of these add-on modules are created by individuals or small groups that are not controlled by the CMS itself, so accessibility is not being monitored centrally. (In fact, almost nothing is being monitored centrally in the entire CMS ecosystem -- it works by people noticing issues, commenting on them the right way, and themselves or others helping to fix problems. So you can help advocate for accessibility by simply reporting the barriers you find.) There may be multiple modules available for most of the special functions you need.

The effect of any given module on accessibility can be unpredictable. There are interactions between themes and modules that can change the appearance of your site; some modules use advanced web technologies that may not be accessible at all. Modules are themselves administered in simple interfaces that let you change how they work via checkboxes and radio buttons; some of these internal settings may affect accessibility, and the default settings may not be the most accessible ones. Unfortunately, there is no alternative to researching these modules to find out what their accessibility implications are. You're not alone in needing this information, and there are plenty of interested, informed people who can help you.

Getting Started

All of the CMSs discussed in this article can be used to make accessible or inaccessible sites. The most useful starting point will be to look at the accessibility information listed for each CMS to see how best to proceed, whether by selecting a theme that already receives high accessibility marks or by modifying another existing theme. (Information on accessible markup is included in our article on "Making Your Organization's Website More Accessible and Usable.") Each CMS (and theme and module) has a lively and committed user community, and individuals and groups will usually be very helpful and responsive to intelligent questions and requests.

Popular CMSs and Their Accessibility

Drupal

Current version: 7

Drupal has a wealth of accessibility resources within the Drupal Accessibility Handbook and the Drupal Theming Guide on Accessibility. The dialogue box for the Insert/Edit image button includes a field for adding a text equivalent. There is also a list of the Eleven Most Accessible Drupal 6 Themes.

Joomla!

Current release: 1.6

Joomla! provides an accessibility statement, but no real guidance. Some accessibility extensions are available. JA Purity is a Joomla! theme that is promoted as accessible.

WordPress

Current version: 3.1

WordPress' accessibility guidance covers a wide range of topics. During the process of uploading an image, you will be prompted to add a description, or you can add one later by going to the Media Library Subpanel. RedLine is a WordPress theme that is promoted as accessible.

Plone

Current version: 4

Plone has a highly technical tutorial on “Improving Accessibility for Your Plone Sites." The general Plone documentation has information on how to upload an image, which includes how to add a text equivalent. While official Plone documentation does not promote any existing themes as accessible, the Disability Resource Centre for Independent Living uses Plone with an accessibility-oriented theme.

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