In yesterday’s twice-monthly meeting, the WordPress Themes Team made a couple of important changes to the official theme directory guidelines. They removed a requirement of some CSS classes that have long been sitting on the chopping block. They also implemented the third stage in their long-term plan to make all WordPress themes accessibility-ready.

For years, theme authors have needed to either style several WordPress classes via CSS or add empty, unused selectors. It was a bit irritating for authors who fell in the latter group. The list includes several classes like .sticky (for sticky posts) and .bypostauthor (for post author comments). Now, styling these classes are optional.

The one question mark in this decision is probably around the classes for handling left, right, and center alignment. While the newer block editor stylesheet does support these classes on the front end, it could leave end-users in the dust if they are using the classic editor and a theme author decides to drop support. Any images in posts could become misaligned. Theme authors should test this and consider any problems before deciding to remove these from their stylesheets. For the other classes, those are mostly design decisions.

This change will not be official until the Theme Check plugin is updated to allow themes without these classes through the system.

The second big change is the reignition of the push toward creating more accessible themes in the directory. All themes in the directory are now required to distinguish links in “content” areas via an underline.

The full guideline is as follows:

When links appear within a larger body of block-level content, they must be clearly distinguishable from surrounding content (Post content, comment content, text widgets, custom options with large blocks of texts).

Links in navigation-like contexts (e.g., menus, lists of upcoming posts in widgets, grouped post meta data) do not need to be specifically distinguished from surrounding content.

The underline is the only accepted method of indicating links within content. Bold, italicized, or color-differentiated text is ambiguous and will not pass.

While this is a simple change, it is a bold one. Thus far, there has not been any pushback from theme authors on the announcement post or in the team meeting. However, some may be expected as the news trickles through the theme design community.

The one question that arose about the requirement was whether theme authors could add an option to allow end-users to opt-out of this behavior. The team said this was allowed as long as the underlined links were enabled by default.

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In July 2019, the Themes Team made a commitment to push theme authors to make their themes more accessible. It was not a switch they were going to flip overnight. Instead, the team made a goal of implementing a new accessibility-related requirement every two months or so. These periods would give both theme authors and reviewers ample time to familiarize themselves with each change.

This is the third requirement added to the guidelines since the team implemented the plan. The team started with some low-hanging fruit and added a requirement that themes ship with a skip-to-content link. That guideline addition went over relatively smoothly. The team quickly added a new guideline requiring that visitors be able to navigate menus via keyboard.

That second guideline landed in August 2019. From the outside looking in, the project was initially going well. However, until yesterday, the team had not added any new accessibility guidelines. Over a year had passed, and the plan seemed to be grinding to a halt. Accessibility advocates were probably wondering what happened.

In a discussion with the Themes Team reps a few months ago, they were not sure when they would implement the next guideline. The project was not going as planned.

“We have not added anything else above that because theme authors are still not releasing themes with working implementations of skip links and usable keyboard navigation,” said team representative William Patton at the time. “When those two things become habitual it will be time to introduce another aspect as a requirement. The fact that this has taken so long for authors to get this right probably indicates that we need to do better at guiding them to resources to learn how to do it and why it is important. Perhaps that is a better avenue to pursue than looking to implement additional asks of them.”

Team rep Carolina Nymark shared similar sentiments. She mentioned that underlined links were up next on the list. However, they did not have a deadline in mind yet.

“Skip links and keyboard navigation are still a headache to some extent for some authors,” said Ganga Kafle, a team representative. He said that theme authors who regularly submit themes are doing so with these requirements in mind. However, keyboard navigation remains the biggest pain point, particularly on mobile views.

“But almost all the themes we get are with skip links working properly,” he said. “That is a good thing so far. The new requirement is not so huge and tough. And I think we need to add such small things in a timely manner.”

For now, the team seems to be picking up where they left off. There is still a long path to go before the project is complete.

The best thing that theme authors can do right now is to follow all of the optional accessibility guidelines. This will prepare them for a future in which they are all required.