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Creating an Accessible Website using a Content Management System (CMS)

Lesson 4 of Section 4

Content management systems enable content creators to work independently from developers. Some examples of content management are the popular WordPress, Joomla and Drupal, which all manage a massive share of the market; especially WordPress which has held over half of the market share for years. Less popular but often more specialized frameworks such as Sitefinity and Plone continue to grow in popularity. As CMS frameworks become more widespread, it becomes increasingly important for developers to be aware of how these systems affect web accessibility.

Contents management systems can typically be separated into four distinct parts. Each of these parts can affect the accessibility of a website.

  1. Core Framework
  2. Themes or Templates
  3. Plugins, Modules or Extensions
  4. Content

Core Framework Accessibility

The core framework of a content managed website determines the starting point for the level of accessibility of a website. This accessibility can be enhanced or destroyed, depending on the themes, plugins, and content added to the site. The core framework has a great deal of influence on how content is added to the website. Frameworks with more stringent requirements for content will reduce the amount of inaccessible content that is published.

Each content management system works to maintain a level of accessibility. Of the three most popular frameworks, Drupal has put the most effort into maintaining a high level of accessibility. Drupal is the only CMS discussed in this lesson that publicly claims either WCAG 2.0 or ATAG 2.0 compliance. Joomla packages accessible templates in the Joomla core files. On the other hand, WordPress' popularity translates to an increase in the availability of user-created themes and plugins, and by extension, accessible themes and plugins.

Some content management systems have written an accessibility statement to announce the extent of their commitment to web accessibility, but many of these statements are out of date. Wordpress does not have a readily available accessibility statement, but has core development groups, like the Make WordPress Accessible group, that set goals for accessibility.

Themes or Templates

The element of a CMS that has the most impact on accessibility is the theme or template. Themes determine the way that content is organized and presented. Themes with poor accessibility result when the structure of webpages includes disorderly headings, or a lack of supplementary information on images, links, or widgets. Themes are also primarily responsible for ensuring that a website is operable using a keyboard.

Front end themes impact the end users of a content managed website. Back end themes apply to the administration area and impact content authors and administrators. Many accessible themes of each type are available for all of the popular frameworks.

Joomla even comes with built-in accessible templates. Joomla core include accessible templates for both front end and back end. Joomla 3 supplies Beez 3 for the front end and Hathor for the back end as built-in accessible templates.

Plugins, Modules or Extensions

Plugins are additional software that extend the functionality of a CMS. They are also the primary source of user widgets on a content managed website. If accessibility is a requirement for a website, then careful review and testing of plugins is necessary. As with themes, there are accessible plugins available; however, accessible plugins are more difficult to identify. One way to gauge the accessibility of a plugin is to contact the author(s).

Plugins that augment the accessibility of a core framework are common. One example of this is the WordPress plugin, WP Accessibility. This plugin changes WordPress's default behaviours to bring a WordPress site more in line with accessibility standards.

Plugins are also available to evaluate the overall accessibility of a website. An example of this is the Accessibility module for Drupal. Plugins like this one supply various accessibility tests to critique websites. These plugins are effective at finding overlooked accessibility issues. They are also a great tool for educating content authors on how their published content affects accessibility.


If the theme and core framework are designed with accessibility in mind, it becomes easier to maintain accessible content. Inevitably a contributor will find a way to publish inaccessible content. Metadata requirements for content can be added, but it will always be impossible to completely prevent inaccessible content from being published. It is more effective to educate and share the responsibility of accessibility with contributors and designers.

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