Home » accessibility » In which WordPress lets me do with an interface what I used to do with code. 13 years later.

In which WordPress lets me do with an interface what I used to do with code. 13 years later.

I don’t even know what version of WordPress I was using when I relaunched this site back in 2008. 2.something, I’m fairly sure. Either way, I’ve been using it for a bit–and yeah, some of the code that used to make this site go is evidence of that. As so often is the case, this year means a new version, and with this new version, WordPress brings back a feature in user interface form that the previous iteration of this site let me do in Notepad. It’s a weird kind of full circle, with an accessibility twist.

This site has existed off and on since 2006, December of. For a couple years it existed on LiveJournal (Remember those guys?), then was brought back here to the platform I’m using now. But in the very beginning, Movable Type powered this site. That… was a very different, and in a lot of ways way less flexible, experience. But here’s the thing now. The big feature this year is full site editing. And yeah, it’s a big feature. But it’s a feature I had before I made the switch–it took Notepad and MT’s templating language, but I mean similar to now, I did it once and pushed a button, and everything else was rebuilt more or less behind the scenes while I moved on to something more fun–like writing some new piece of content for my newly revamped and barely read website. So for me, as with so many things technology, I’ve essentially come full circle but with a prettier interface.

I made the switch because I got curious, and because I built this website for two reasons–a place for me to brain dump on occasion, and a place for me to test out this or that new project in a way that won’t kill anyone–this place gets maybe 3 human visitors a week, so no one’s going to notice but me if I do a thing and it 500’s the server for 20 minutes (yes, that happened). I mean, if I do a thing and it freaking takes off, then awesome. But that’s very, very much a third-place benefit to me running this thing. So I got curious. And being curious, I decided fuck it, I had little to nothing to lose, and I took FSE for a spin.

Couple things to note right off the top. If you hate the block editor, you’ll hate FSE. FSE is the block editor cranked up to 11 with a few extras thrown in just to make it interesting. FSE is still in beta (*), so it’s probably not going to do things the way you expect in this version. With a little luck, that changes when 5.9.1 comes out–whenever that is. But I mean, the block editor was released in December 2018 and it’s still being heavily worked on/improved/criticized 3 years later, so there’s room. I don’t personally mind it anymore (no, that’s not because I’m being paid by the WordPress people now–I’ve let fly with some unpopular opinions re: things that would be a lot different if they let me run the thing for a day), so I had a lot fewer concerns switching to full site editing than I did switching to the block editor–and it took me nearly the full 3 years to switch to the block editor.

Like I said, though, I do have a few concerns–and I’m kind of hoping those get addressed before we rip the beta label off this thing. Notably, while the editor’s mostly accessible, there are still some things that only read properly if you navigate with browse mode turned off, or otherwise in the equivalent of JAWS for Windows’s forms mode.

You can’t, yet–that I’ve found, but I’m open to learning I’m incorrect–resize the header or footer area with a screen reader. Or you can and I’m an idiot, but I’ve not as yet seen it.

When editing templates directly, for example the “home” or “single post” template, you can’t immediately tell where the actual page content ends and your header or footer begins–you can if you know your screen reader inside and out and know when to rely on turning on forms mode/turning off browse mode, but the average user’s not going to be thinking about that. They’re going to be trying to design their website with a not quite completely accessible interface.

Some of the individual blocks don’t read as well with a screen reader, again unless you turn on forms mode/turn off browse mode (I’m thinking, as an example, the various group/row/columns blocks), but that’s true when using the normal editor and doesn’t apply solely to the new site editor.

Still, if you know these issues exist, and you know how to manipulate your screen reader in such a way that you can work around these issues, it’s usable. There’s an argument to be made that you shouldn’t have to, and I agree with that argument 150%, but until that gets fixed yeah that’s a have to thing. If you can work around these issues though, FSE isn’t a terrible idea. It’s also about 13 years late–at least if you’re me.

If you can’t find a theme that gives you a left and right sidebar, just as an example, then find a theme that gives you most of what you want and build yourself a left and right sidebar using FSE. The entire right side of this site, such as it is, was built using FSE. It’s still a work in progress because–again, it being a beta and it not being entirely accessible–working with it takes a little longer than it should and I don’t feel like spending my weekend poking at it, but what’s there was built using FSE. The footer was slightly redesigned–again, work in progress–using FSE. The breadcrumbs were added (because search engines like them) using FSE–remember what I said about this website being a testing ground for my personal curiosities?

I still have a lot of space to play with, and will probably find things to put there, but the point is in the old days, if the theme I was using didn’t support it, I either messed with code or found another theme. I don’t mind messing with code–I lived in the classic editor for as long as I did partly because I enjoyed writing the code for my posts by hand, and I may still switch to the code editor on occasion to do that just for fun. But if I wanted to be a WordPress developer, I’d be a WordPress developer. I don’t (at least not right at this second), so I’m not (**). I built this site largely as a brain dump. And yeah, over the years some of that brain dump has been code. But now if I throw a custom piece of code up here it’s because I want to, not because it’s meeting a need that isn’t met out of the box.

FSE will probably piss me off. Hell, the Gutenberg editor will probably piss me off. It’s already responsible for a few of the things I’ve opened in GitHub because they annoy me (some of them are due to my employer, so I don’t count those). But they don’t stop pissing me off if I shut up about them. And I want them to stop pissing me off. So if some developer type reads this and thinks they can improve things, then it’s done its job. But if not, then it was pretty much just a brain dump–and well, that was kind of the entire point of this site when I set the thing up. I got away from doing that for a few years because, you know, Twitter’s all the rage these days, but one of the things I fully intended to do in the new year is get back into it. And hey, if nothing else, a new WordPress with a feature I haven’t seen implemented in 13 years is as good a reason as any. Plus, I mean let’s be real here. Mocking stupid people on Twitter is less effective in 280 characters. Apparently I’m more of a 1400 words person.

(*): Who slaps a beta label on a thing then makes it a cornerstone feature of a production version of a major platform? This major platform, apparently. I really freaking hope you know what you’re doing, guys. I’m admitedly a little worried you don’t. That being said, I will beta test on the production box all day long, because it’s not like this production box is paying my bills or anything.

(**): I have not ruled out eventually picking up a decent code editor and having at it. I just haven’t yet. But see the thing is, working for the WordPress people (no, this post doesn’t get the category when I eventually stop being lazy and create it) means if I decide I want to, they’ll cut me the slack I need so I can. So if I ever decide I want to, I can no longer say I don’t have the time. And if today I don’t have the money, then today I have a spending problem. I already fixed my revenue problem. But at this second, I’m most definitely not the developer type and have no immediate plans to correct that.

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