NCDAE Tips and Tools: Content Management Systems & Accessibility

Created: June 2006

Description

Almost every large organization, educational and otherwise, uses some sort of Content Management System (CMS). A CMS is a tool or set of tools designed to help create, edit, organize and present information on the web. There are dozens of Content Management Systems available, and while each has its differences, there are some general principles that can usually be applied to increase CMS accessibility.

Guidelines for Choosing a CMS

Unless you are a Webmaster or IT professional, you seldom get to choose the CMS that your group will use; but if you are able to choose, here are a few questions to ask yourself when selecting a CMS.

Open Source and Commercial Tools

Although there are many ways to classify Content Management Systems, one easy division is between Open Source and Commercial tools. Both open source

Open Source

Strengths

Weaknesses

Commercial

Strengths

Weaknesses

Techniques to Improve CMS Accessibility

This section will address some general challenges and solutions that may help improve the accessibility of your CMS. Every CMS is different so some of these issues may not apply for a specific CMS.

This document does not provide specific fixes for individual content management systems. Instead, it addresses common CMS accessibility problems and offers solutions on how these issues might be overcome. If you are looking for information on a particular CMS, see the links at the end of this document.

When working to repair problems, divide issues into 'problems with the template or navigation' and 'problems with specific features' such as a chat or calendar. Address the template problems first, as these will probably impact more users in more situations. If a certain feature is necessary, it might be easiest to link to an accessible alternative rather than try to make the feature natively accessible within the CMS.

Accessibility Challenge Disability type(s) Possible Solution(s)
The authoring environment does not enable or require a contributor to post accessible content. All
  • See if you can customize the interface so it requires or prompts the user to provide certain information, like alt text for images, table headers, etc.
A synchronous chat may not be accessible to a screen reader user. Blind, Low vision
  • If synchronous chats are necessary, consider linking to an accessible external chat program. A comprehensive list of chat programs is available at http://www.ebility.com/links/chat.php.
  • Avoid using synchronous chats to communicate. Instead try using an asynchronous forum, if accessible, or email to collaborate.
There may be mouse-dependent functions, such as those found in online quizzes or calendars. Blind, Motor
  • If the functionality is not crucial, such as the ability to enlarge or collapse sections on the page or to drag and drop elements, consider disabling or removing the function.
  • If the functionality is crucial, it may be necessary to use an external site or program.
Some CMS's use frames to display the content. These frames may have missing or vague titles, or the quantity of frames may make the site difficult to navigate. Blind, Cognitive
  • If you can edit the names of the frames, change frame names so they are descriptive.
  • When possible, limit the number of frames the user comes in contact with.
  • When there is a link in a frame, try to ensure that the link opens in the same frame, or notify the user that it will open in a new frame or window.
Interfaces may be overly complex. Cognitive, Low vision, Blind, Motor
  • Ask yourself if the more complex features are necessary. Some things, such as polls, calendars and chats may be available options, but only include them if they enhance the user experience.
  • If the homepage is overly complex, shift some of the less important content to second-level pages.
A link may not be provided to skip repetitive navigation. Blind, Low vision, Motor
  • Add a skip navigation or skip to content link, if possible.
  • If a link cannot be added, reduce the number of links that a user must access before reaching the main content.
  • Use headings properly. A screen reader user navigating by headings may use these headings to skip to relevant content.
Many CMS's make extensive use of non-HTML files, such as PDF, MS Word, PowerPoint, etc. This is not necessarily a weakness in the CMS, but it is a common accessibility problem. All users
  • Ensure that non-HTML documents are natively accessible or that accessible alternatives are provided (see fact sheets for Word, PowerPoint and PDF).
Many CMS's provide unnecessary accessibility "features" like numerous access keys, a confusing tab order, overly long titles for elements, hidden text intended for screen readers, overly descriptive alt text, etc. All users
  • Make sure that the accessibility features are necessary and, if possible, disable or repair the ones that are not.
  • Consider disabling access keys as they may interfere with other keyboard shortcuts.

Resources for Popular Content Management Systems

The following is a brief list of links to a few popular Content Management Systems, There are dozens of CMS's available, so this list is by no means exhaustive. This list is not meant to be an endorsement of one CMS above the others, especially since many of them are currently working to make significant accessibility improvements.

Blackboard

Blackboard is probably the best known and possibly the most widely-used commercial CMS, especially after purchasing WebCT. Blackboard is currently working to further improve the accessibility of its CMS. We will update this resource as more information is made available.

ATutor

ATutor is an open source CMS that advertises accessibility as its most prominent feature.

QnECMS (Quick & Easy CMS)

QnECMS also advertises accessibility as a central feature. It was created by accessibility consultant Jim Byrne. It is not free, but the cost is much lower than many other commercial CMS's.

Plone

Plone is one of the more accessible open source content management systems available. It also has a large base of users and an active user community.

Sakai

Sakai is quickly gaining momentum as a very popular CMS in part because it receives funding from prominent groups like IBM and Sun. Although there seem to be a few accessibility issues with Sakai, the developer is putting a good deal of effort into improving accessibility.

Moodle

Moodle is currently working to improve its accessibility, but some of the fixes seem counterproductive. Still Moodle is a popular CMS with many good features and they are promising an accessible CMS by version 1.7.

Joomla

Joomla is a re-release of Mambo, a very popular content management system. At the time of this writing, Joomla 1.0.9 is the newest release. Supposedly, several accessibility fixes are due in version 1.2.

These are just a few of the Content Management Systems worth mentioning. If you have information on a CMS that you think should be added to this list, please contact us.

Increasing Accessibility through Procurement Policy

Commercial providers of Content Management Systems have an obligation to represent the needs of their consumers. One of the best things you can do to increase the accessibility of commercial CMS's is to let them know that accessibility matters to you.

Before purchasing a CMS make sure you ask about its accessibility, and make it clear that accessibility is a strong motivating factor when choosing a CMS. Many vendors will say that their product is accessible, hoping that you don't know what that means. It might be a good idea to ask follow up questions that show your understanding of the issue (what standards or guidelines are they trying to follow, is the interface keyboard accessible, is it alright if I test the interface with a screen reader, etc.). You could even go as far as to include language in your procurement policy (if you have one) requiring that you purchase the most accessible CMS.

Conclusion

Accessibility has really become an important issue for most CMS developers. As a matter of fact, many of the prominent CMS's are currently involved in significant accessibility upgrades. The time may come when most CMS templates can be made accessible, but for most Content Management Systems, that is not yet the case.