Interview with Amber Hinds: Co-Organizer of WordPress Accessibility Day

"If people with disabilities cannot publish with WordPress, then you are failing in your goal of 'democratizing publishing'."

Amber Hinds

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Amber Hinds is a CEO, entrepreneur, teacher, blogger, public speaker, mother of 4 daughters, and wife to / business partner with her husband Chris.  Somehow, she has also found time this year to co-organize the 2022 WordPress Accessibility Day, and this latter topic is what we sat down to talk about.

Devin: Hi Amber, thanks for joining me! First off, tell me a bit about your background and what you do.

Amber:  I’m the CEO of Equalize Digital – we’re a WordPress agency that focuses on accessibility and that’s really central to everything that we do.  We do website development for enterprise clients, accessibility audits, and some remediation.  A lot of the audits we do are actually for other agencies and then they do all the dev work, but they have us come in and be their accessibility specialists on the project.  Then we have the plugin called Accessibility Checker that shows WordPress users accessibility scan reports of problems that can be identified and puts them on the dashboard.

I got into accessibility with my work at Colorado State University – so in addition to speaking and teaching there – they’re a client of ours and have been a client of ours since 2015.  Because of that and because they need to be compliant under section 508, everything we build for them has to be accessible, and they’re really the client that got me started in accessibility, and we realized that we really liked it.  

Personally, I want my work to have meaning, and knowing that we can build websites that then make it easier for people with disabilities to have equal access to everything in the world – that they should have access to – it really for me makes me feel like those websites have more meaning than a cool pretty website for a company to sell something. 

Devin: Totally – I love it that Equalize Digital focuses on accessibility.  I’ve found a passion for Accessibility and WordPress as well.  As far as WordPress Accessibility Day is concerned, how did that get its start?  I know it just started in 2020, were you a part of it then?

Amber:  So – yes – WordPress Accessibility Day was started in 2020.  I was not an organizer but a volunteer in 2020.  The event got started through the WordPress Core Accessibility TeamJoe Dolson who is the other lead organizer this year was one of the original founders and organizers of WordPress Accessibility Day.  They did it in 2020 and intended it to be a yearly event, but in 2021 something things ended up happening and the event didn’t take place.  After that, I contacted Joe and said that I would help organize for 2022 if he would help too – because it’s nice to have someone there that has some history and has been there before.  So we’re co-organizing the event for this year.  

It is not an official WordPress event anymore – that was something that we had a lot of conversations about in the beginning.  There are challenges with running things through the WordPress Community Support Public Benefit Organization – especially around how getting sponsorship funds works and being able to distribute or use the sponsorship funds.  

Because we are an accessibility-focused event we have to have live captions and can’t rely on auto-captions, and there are a lot of things that were really challenging on that front in the first year. Also, we really want to pay speakers because we think speakers should be paid for their time, and as you know, that’s against the rules of WordCamps.  So that is the motivation behind not running it as a technical WordCamp.

Devin: Interesting, yep, that makes sense.  That’s definitely something that we’ve written about at MasterWP in the past.

Amber: Yeah, actually, I was trying to figure out if I could do a special workshop through our meetup on screen reader testing – and I want to be able to pay a speaker because it needs to be around 3-hour workshop on how to use a screen reader, how to test, and potentially have a person who is blind do it.  People who have disabilities frequently get asked to do things for free, and I want to be able to pay them for their time.  Also, there’s an additional cost for us because we always live caption things because – you have to if you’re hosting an accessibility meetup.  But the Make WP Community Event Slack Channel said “Nope, you’re not allowed, they have to be volunteer speakers.”

So that was a thing that we talked about a lot with WordPress Accessibility Day, and that was a combination of knowing that we were going to need to pay for the accessibility, and the software, getting money in and out, and then also the fact that we want to be able to give our speakers on honorarium. 

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Devin: Gotcha, and so speaking of challenges with 2020, I’ve noticed the difficulty with the captions on YouTube and not having the videos broken apart into separate talks – is that something that having more funding available this year will help with, and make the videos a better resource for future viewers?

Amber: Yes, this year, we’ve put together a very detailed budget, and we did include a budget for editing and post-event transcription; we can’t just use the live captions on the final videos because there will be mistakes in them.  Last time, there wasn’t a budget for that, so it relied on volunteers and pretty much just ended up being Joe… which is a lot for one person to correct captions on 24 hours of videos.  

Richard Gauder stepped up this year to organize the post-event details, and he has been really thoughtful about what we need to do to keep the event running.  For example, there’s a MailChimp account, a Google Drive, hosted email – and last time somebody started paying for those, but after the event they stopped because they didn’t want to eat the cost for the full year.  This year we’re trying to think that: if this is an event that goes on continually, it doesn’t make sense to cancel these services and then have to set them back up again three months later.  So we worked on a budget that accounts for the year-round expenses, but also post-event editing so that we have the captions, and we can make those videos available for people, and not just have to rely on volunteers. 

So that was a big thing for us, trying to make sure we have a solid budget and we put more thought and effort into the sponsorships – Bet Hannon is leading that team, and they’ve been doing a great job so far with bringing in sponsors. There have been a lot of companies that have stepped up, which is wonderful. 

Devin: So with creating a budget that is forward thinking and planning for things you’ll need post-event and services throughout the year, what are some other items that the funding is going towards that will make WordPress Accessibility Day better and more of a reliable ongoing event?

Amber: We have Google Workspace, MailChimp, the domain registration, and Website Hosting for ongoing services.  We’re planning to pay for Restream for a couple of months, and the reason we’re doing that is we’re going to use it to do some marketing in advance of the event.  We’re going to do live streams with sponsors at certain sponsorship tiers as a benefit in advance to promote themselves, but we can also get some excitement going about WP Accessibility Day, so we’re planning to use Restream with Zoom in order to do that.  Zoom is how we think we’re going to record the speakers and broadcast out – so we have a cost for that. 

Then our biggest expense is in our accessibility category.  We’re 100% going to have live captioning in English, and I’m pretty sure we’re also going to have sign language interpreters (I think we’ve hit that budget mark already).  One of the things that we got estimates for, that we would really like to do this year if we get enough funding is to have live captioning in other languages.  So if someone didn’t understand English, they could still tune in and read the captions in their language and “listen” live.  We might not be able to have that same translation in the questions, like a chat moderator to translate, but we budgeted to have the audio translated in two different languages in both the live event and post-video transcription.  

Accessibility and making the event available in other languages is our biggest budget item, but it is really important to us because a lot of people don’t really know about website accessibility and they don’t know how important it is, and so the more we can make it globally available (and that’s part of why this is a 24 hr event) the more we can increase awareness on accessibility and why it’s important and give people easy ways to make progress.  Even if they don’t make their website perfect, they can find ways to make it better.

Devin: That’s really kind of setting the bar too, you know.  For other talks and presentations to look at and see how to make their event the most accessible. 

Amber:  Right.  So then the other things we put in the budget is for giving people gifts, right now we’re going to guarantee at least $100 per speaker – we may go higher depending on what we can bring in with sponsorships and donations.  We had also talked about, if we had some extra money, making some charitable donations to something related to accessibility.  Something that teaches blind people to code for example.  We don’t actually have it in our budget yet, but this year we’re just putting a detailed budget together to see what is possible so that next year we can create a goal for fundraising for a non profit that supports people with disabilities in tech or something like that.

Then there’s post-event video editing – editing the videos into smaller parts after recording so that we don’t end up with one 24 hour video, or we might want to edit out parts of the videos in between.  Finally we have a line item to account for Stripe processing fees because we decided to give donors and sponsors the option to pay via credit card to make it easier for them. 

So our total budget we’re projecting for if we hit our sponsorship goal is just under 34k, and some of this budget again is for the full year not just while we’re organizing.  Of course if we’re able to pay for things like video transcription we can hopefully get them turned around faster than relying on volunteers.  So we can get the videos out faster and have all of them released by the end of the month.

Devin: This is awesome, it’s great to see that you guys have really planned this out for the future prosperity of the event, and I personally hope I can continue to help in the coming years. Thanks for sharing all of that information with me.

Amber: Of course!  Especially with questions like where we are spending our money, I want to be clear about that because I do think one of the negatives of having to pull the event out of the WordPress Community Foundation is that it’s less clear where the money is spent and where it is going. My company (Equalize Digital) isn’t profiting off of this event – we’re doing this because we think it’s a really important event for the community and we’re trying to operate super transparently.  So everything is out there and anyone who wants to join our Slack can join, and anyone who wants to get involved and help organize, can help organize and have a say where things go.

Devin: I think that’s really key with something like this too because people want to know where their funding is going, and in my mind there is hardly a better cause than this with WordPress Accessibility.  

With that, I have some questions more pointed at WordPress Accessibility:  What do you think should be the main focus of WordPress Accessibility right now, and what do you think is the most overlooked aspect of WordPress Accessibility?

Amber: I think one really important thing is we need to get more tools for proactive accessibility, or funneling users who know nothing about accessibility built into WP core.  So, Nick Croft from Reaktiv has a plugin called Screen Reader Text Format, and I think in 2020 he opened an issue on the Gutenberg GitHub about how we need a screen reader text format so it’s easy for people to format their text as screen reader text without having to go to the HTML and add a span tag.  That plugin works great and we use it a bunch, but he only created it as a plugin because a lot of people thought that users wouldn’t know how to use it and it hasn’t been added to core as a result.  But it’s like, let’s make this tool available to everyone and teach people how to use it.  

Also, there’s been conversations on the Accessibility Team last year about how there should be an ARIA label field on core buttons so that if somebody puts “learn more” as their visible text, they can be more detailed with their ARIA label.  But then that conversation ended with “well, that would probably be better handled with screen reader text” but then… we don’t put the screen reader text into core.  I mean, Nick has said ‘I am happy if you pull all of my code into core’ it’s not like he’s trying to profit off of this plugin.  

So I just feel like there is a major lack of focus on the importance of accessibility, especially coming from the top at Automattic, and that is a problem. I mean, there are no paid contributors on the Accessibility Team, so no company has said I’m willing to pay or sponsor somebody who’s contributing to the Accessibility Team.  It’s all volunteers – which right there shows you that there are going to be more challenges for accessibility in WordPress.

Another example of something we’ve talked about before (and I would love to see it included in Core rather than me having to build a plugin for it) is we should not allow people to choose whatever heading level they want in their heading blocks.  The heading block should recognize what headings are already on the page, and only offer them the correct number.  So if there are no headings on the page, and you add a heading block, you should not be able to choose an H5.  You should be able to choose an H2, and that is it.  

Doing that would really help people who know nothing about accessibility.  It would stop them from making really obvious problems. It would make their site better without them even realizing they’re making it better.   Those types of change, ones that force accessible content, would make the biggest difference in the accessibility of WordPress sites.

As for the most overlooked thing, and I have noticed in the last two years some developers are putting more effort into this, is that plugin and theme developers generally are just completely ignoring accessibility.  Either because they don’t know about it or they don’t prioritize it, and a huge amount of accessibility issues are added to websites from the plugins that people install or the themes that people use.  My hope with WP Accessibility Day when we are choosing talks is that we can have some that appeal to plugin developers and not just website owners, or website builders. I really want plugin developers to see that this is something that they can build into their process, here’s how to do it, this is important, and here’s why.  

If you think about the cascading effect: if we have a plugin that has 500k active installs, and they have accessibility problems, they’re causing problems on 500k websites.  But if they go in and fix that, they make 500k websites more accessible just by making one change in their tool.  And the same thing goes for themes.  So I would really like to see more on the product owner side – making things more accessible.  

Devin: Right, that’s just huge.  Well, I was going to save this for last, but you’re already jumping right into it so…  are you ready for a kind of ‘hot take’ question?

Amber: Sure!

Devin: Ok great, because I felt like it is something worth discussing and it is something that has certainly been on my mind.  Do you think that where WP is going with Gutenberg and Full Site Editing is a distraction from focusing on accessibility?

Amber: I’m not a fan of, and anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I don’t love Full Site Editing, but I also operate in the land of enterprise websites where it doesn’t make sense.  I do like the block editor though. We were early to the block editor.  We use that on all of our projects and there are major benefits to the block editor.  One of the best benefits I love is that I don’t ever have to teach someone how to use a shortcode to add columns to their text, it’s very easy.  

I think the block editor has a long way to go, though and I know that the block editor is very challenging especially for screen reader users to use.  I think that it is getting better, but I think that there’s this push especially from the top to insert full site editing and insert the block editor and move it forward and make it happen based on timelines that have been set in perhaps one person’s head.  As a result, things get released even when they have accessibility problems and that is a major issue.  

Accessibility problems existing in Core WordPress features should stop them from being released.  That should be considered as “we cannot release this”.  Knowing how much WordPress powers the web and there’s a goal of “democratizing publishing”, that means that people with disabilities should be able to use it.  If people with disabilities cannot publish with WordPress, then you are failing in your goal of “democratizing publishing.”            

Devin: Do you think that this is the main challenge with the accessibility of WordPress as an authoring tool?

Amber:  Yeah, that’s what I’m getting at with the block editor and that there’s a lot of challenges with that.  I know that some of the higher ed people that I talk with in web services departments or are developers at higher ed institutions, some of them are still on classic editor because the block editor fails WCAG in many places, which makes it not section 508 compliant.  So there are just issues within that, and you could go look at all the open accessibility tickets on trac and get a feel for what those are.  But just as an authoring tool, if democratizing publishing is your goal then we have to have an authoring tool that works for everyone.  

Devin: Yes, I completely agree.  Ok, lightening it up back with just a couple more final questions:  where is the future heading for WordPress Accessibility Day and how can people help?

Amber: We just released our call for speakers, so we definitely want people to come and apply to speak.  Towards the end of this month, we will be releasing our call for volunteers, and we will need people in a lot of different areas where they can help.  On the actual day of the event, if there’s people who could be hosting, which is actually being on camera, introducing the speaker, and asking them the questions when they come into the chat.  We will also need moderators who don’t need to be on camera, but are open to watching the chat and managing that in case there is an issue that comes up.  We will need people with more technical abilities just to be behind the scenes making sure that our streaming and everything is set up and running. So the day-of event is an area where a lot of people can help.  

Once we have the agenda out, of course we would love to have people share it and help promote the event.  It is a completely free event, but we’ll have registration and as a part of the registration we will give people the option to donate or become a micro-sponsors if they want to.  We do have a donation form up on the website now, so anyone that is interested in helping to support our efforts – even 5 or 10 dollars could make a difference in helping us make it more accessible for people around the world in more languages. 

Devin:  Awesome. Last question: what was your favorite talk (or talks) from 2020 and why?

Amber: I enjoyed Sheri Byrne-Haber’s talk.  That was actually one of the talks that I was a moderator for, but she is on the committee for WCAG 2.2 and Silver. She gave an update on what’s coming with those two versions and that was really helpful. I learned a lot from her and she is also just a great accessibility advocate, she writes a lot about accessibility, and has a legal background as well.  

I also always enjoy Meryl Evans when she talks – she gave a talk about captions which is phenomenal, and anyone who produces video content should go watch the recording of her talk because she’s a great speaker and she provides really great insights for how to write good captions for your videos.

Devin:  I really liked Meryl’s talk too!  She is just very enjoyable to watch. Even though I haven’t done any video captioning as of yet, it really made me think about it in a new way.  I always like presentations that are about something that I’m not really familiar with that will make me think more about something that I don’t know anything about, yet. I liked that one a lot. 

Ok well, that actually wraps it up for the question that I had but I truly enjoyed talking with you.  I really appreciate you taking the time to talk, sharing some honest takes about WordPress Accessibility, and even diving into some of the tougher topics with me.

Amber: Of course, you’re welcome!

If you’re looking to get involved with WordPress Accessibility day you can visit their website at wpaccessibility.day.

And as always, if you have any takes of your own regarding WordPress Accessibility and want to join the conversation, feel free to tweet it out @_MasterWP

Thanks for reading everyone, and have a great day!


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Devin is a software developer at Howard Development & Consulting, the company behind MasterWP and WP Wallet.

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