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CMS Accessibility - who is responsible?

Published: 10th February 2010

Author: Andrew Hart

I was recently involved in a discussion over on LinkedIn regarding CMS accessibility - and who was ultimately responsible.

The short answer is that you can not afford to leave this in the hands of your CMS vendor and to summarise the main points:

  1. You must include accessibility in your initial requirements specification
  2. This must be followed through to your functional and technical specifications
  3. A CMS is not just the software it is also the procedures surrounding it
  4. Accessibility can not be measured by automated tools alone
  5. No CMS can guarantee accessibility

If you would like to know more the following is my input into the discussion:

Hi

Any vendor who sells you a CMS and tells you something along the lines of "you cant do anything that can cause a failure" is lying outright.

A CMS is a piece of software that does what you tell it to do. The example of a picture of a dog with alt text referring to it as a cat might seem like an overly simplistic example but it is perfectly valid. The point is a CMS is simply a tool - not an accessibility expert.

In terms of the WCAG there far more guidelines that can only be checked by a human than can be automated. Given that this is the case then how can any CMS guarantee accessibility? Simple - it can't.

There is one very major and very common misconception about what a CMS actually is:

…a CMS is not just the bit of software you buy. That is just one part of the picture - the other part of the picture being the training and procedures needed to operate it correctly (note: the S in CMS stands for System not Software!!). 99% of the time this is overlooked or shoved in a dusty corner. The software without the training is not a CMS…it is just a bit of software that makes it easier for people who don't know what they are doing to make mistakes, to make them faster, easier, more efficiently and more damaging to the website/company they are running.

Incidentally, what most people refer to as CMS are nothing of the sort. Joomla, Drupal, Wordpress and all the others that are commonly called CMS are actually WCMS (Web CMS). The difference between the two is vast to the point that WCMS would really be more accurately labeled as Web Publishing Platforms as there is little or no content management involved in them!

You need to spell out your requirements clearly in you requirements document. Sadly many people who seek out web development companies don't even know what a requirements document is (let alone the functional and technical specification documents!).

Couple that with most cowboy web development companies only working with one CMS and you have a recipe for disaster.

So, circling back to your question "How do you break the circle" [who is to blame for CMS accessibility failure] …simple:

  1. Create a full specification of what you think you need before you approach any CMS vendor.
  2. Do not tell them you have this document available - know your stuff but feign ignorance. If they don't ask for a requirements spec very early on then simply walk away.
  3. Work closely with your vendor to ensure that your "requirements" are properly translated into "functions" and "technical solutions".

…if you follow that simple process then any failures can easily be identified, quantified and apportioned fairly.

…if you fail to follow that procedure and something goes wrong then you only have yourself to blame - besides, you will probably be in the dark when something goes wrong so you won't even see it happening!

If you would like to read the full discussion it is available over on LinkedIn Group: Web Accessibility