Joe Dolson is a core committer to the WordPress project, and has been actively contributing to the accessibility of WordPress since 2012. Joe is the author of several WordPress plug-ins focused on accessibility and on accessible services for WordPress, including WP Accessibility, Access Monitor, My Calendar, and My Tickets.

In addition to plug-in development, Joe offers accessibility consulting, focused on helping non-profit organizations and small businesses. Also active as a speaker and educator, Joe teaches a course on Accessibility for WordPress through the LinkedIn Learning library.

We chatted with Joe about inclusive design, alternative text for social media, and more.

1. Tell us about your background in accessibility.

My interest in accessibility stems from early on in my life. My mother spent most of her life invested in helping people with disabilities, with a specific focus on accessibility in the arts. As a result, the idea that the burden for accessibility rests on the creators was part of my awareness early on. Making art accessible is very much about taking the experience of art and translating it into another modality — the audio description of theatrical productions, ASL interpreters for music performance, or making physical artwork available for tactile experience.

When I set out to become a web developer in 2003, I had relatively little experience with design or programming. I'd purchased my first computer in 2000, after completing degrees in music and classics, and had just started to teach myself web development while working at the Macalester College library in Saint Paul, MN.

But I knew a couple of things: I wasn't interested in a career building advertising or working in marketing, and I knew a little bit about the fundamental principles of creating with accessibility in mind. I didn't know web accessibility, but it was the first priority for me in learning how to develop for the web.

2. What is the biggest divide between technology and digital accessibility?

Technology is totally capable of being accessible to most users, most of the time. The failings in digital accessibility are usually fixable. There are always gaps in support and user needs that aren't addressed; but the majority of the time, technology can be accessible. But the process of development frequently gets in the way.

Innovation-first development is something I see get in the way regularly in WordPress. Technology is too frequently created with the idea that we're creating something new, so we just need to "get it working", then we can iterate to make it accessible. There are two concerns about this: first, if it isn't accessible, then it isn't working; and second, that it's a better workflow to create something broken then fix it than it is to create something of more limited scope that works.

Innovation and iteration can work with accessibility in mind. But what I actually see happen is a process of laying out the entire body of technology at once, then gradually fixing each piece. If the product takes 2 years from start to finish, it's only accessible at the very end. If you build each piece accessibly, the the product can be accessible at all stages of development.

This isn't just a service to your end users; it's opens your organization to better employment practices, because developers with disabilities can participate more fully in the project, since the early stages of the project are something they can interact with. 

"Everything about inclusive digital design is rooted in thinking about people, however: recognizing what people need to get from digital technology."

3. What are the most fundamental factors of inclusive digital design?

Well, that's a big question. Everything about inclusive digital design is rooted in thinking about people, however: recognizing what people need to get from digital technology. Respecting the user and putting their needs before your own biases and attitudes is always a good start. Even as a practiced developer in the accessibility sphere, I regularly have to be reminded to avoid jargon, for example.

These are hard things to do: the more deeply you become invested in a project, the more you become inured to the information that's unique to your project.

If somebody tells you that they don't understand an interaction, you need to remember that this is an opportunity for you to figure out where you can make things better; not an opportunity to explain to them how it's supposed to work.

The multi-faceted nature of perception is right there in the fundamentals: data is transformable, and inclusive design is about taking that transformation into consideration at every step of the process.

A young woman uses a screen reader with her assistance dog by her feet.

4. As an advocate for digital accessibility, what advice would you give those who want to learn more?

Start by thinking about how people get and interact with information, rather than by thinking about the technology. People are the starting point, so you need to understand how information is communicated in general terms before you start to think about the technology. When you recognize that the way an event is made available to somebody who is blind is by hearing a textual description of that event, then you're well positioned to research how to implement the technology.

There's a lot to learn about how to implement technology accessibly, and it's constantly changing in terms of what works, what's supported, and how you work with it. But the fundamentals are more consistent, and a firm grasp on how people perceive information gives you better tools for research. It also gives you a strong background to recognize bad advice or misinformation about accessibility.

Finally, listen to the experiences of people with disabilities. Search out the opinions people with disabilities have about your product as well as about other technology experiences; hear what they have to say about their experiences. Learning is an experience that merges what you know with what you gain from others; getting other viewpoints is a crucial part of the process.

5. What are the best ways to add alternative content for photos and videos on social media?

The contexts I mostly work within for photos and videos are WordPress and Twitter. And WordPress supports alt attributes, captions for videos, and all the most common methods for adding alternative content. Recently, support for adding video captions was added to the block editor — finally matching the support that is already available in the classic editor. With plug-ins, you can expand that support to use long descriptions as overlays using my own plug-in, WP Accessibility.

Twitter has a few options for adding alternative content — support for alt attributes is a must, but you can also add captioned videos through Twitter Cards. If you post a video with captions through a page with Twitter Cards, the captions will be available in the Twitter interface. I don't know many ways to support those; but they are available within WordPress using my plug-in WP to Twitter with the WP Tweets Pro premium add-on.

In the end, the mechanisms for making your social media content accessible are hugely variable; what's most important is that you consider the accessibility of your content before posting it. If you can't find a way to make that probably-incredibly-clever-meme accessible, maybe you should think twice before passing it on.

I'd like to think that taking the time to make social media content accessible would force people to really think about the content before they share it!

To keep up with Joe's work, follow him on Twitter at @joedolson. For more information about Diamond, explore this website and follow us on Twitter at @DWSLA