Content management systems and accessibility

A common reason for sites being inaccessible is the general ignorance among CMS developers. Very few seem to actually understand what accessibility (or web standards, for that matter) is. Because of that ignorance, which seems to be particularly widespread among enterprise-level CMS vendors, most CMSs have an inaccessible admin interface that is used to publish inaccessible websites.

In my dayjob as a front-end developer I always make sure that whatever CMS we use will at least allow the published content to be accessible and standards compliant. But the admin interface used to publish content is a different matter. We rarely even touch that, for several reasons:

  • Understanding the mish-mash of nested tables, 20th century HTML, and JavaScript dependencies that most CMS admin interfaces consist of is near impossible.
  • Messing around with the admin interface is asking for trouble when it’s time to upgrade the CMS.
  • It isn’t really our job, unless a CMS vendor pays us to do what they should have done from the beginning (ever heard of Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines?).

So, are there any options if you want a CMS that has an accessible admin interface? Perhaps. A good start might be to read Choosing an Accessible CMS at Juicy Studio. In the article, several free open source CMSs are evaluated in order to determine which is the most accessible. Several seem to be usable, including Plone, Drupal, and Quick and Easy.

When it comes to commercial alternatives, I am not aware of any CMS whose admin interface even comes close to being accessible. But obviously I haven’t used them all (which I doubt any single person has).

If you happen to know of any accessible commercial options, please speak up. Same thing if you know of open source alternatives that are even better than the ones evaluated in Choosing an Accessible CMS.

Posted on June 5, 2007 in Accessibility, Content Management


  1. June 5, 2007 by Bonde

    I like these two Rails based engines:

  2. what about wordpress. It has great accessibility standards and also widespread use by the community. I think there are some commercial companies which also use wordpress as their cms. Another commercial cms which i have had some experience in using is Tridion. Its used by major and well know multinationals and can create code which is standards based.

  3. I’d like to know how Community Server 2007 stacks up.

  4. I like Symphony (open source) a lot.

  5. I use (and love) ExpressionEngine (EE). I’ve used quite a few publishing systems and EE is my favorite. I’ve found it much easier to do the things I wanted to do with EE than in other systems. EE however, is not open source. They do have a free “core” version with limited features but it’s not open source. I was scratching my head at first when I read the article in that they said about EE “…lacks more advanced functionality” then it hit me that they must have tested the “core” version, because with the personal and commercial licenses, the features and possibilities of what you can do with a website are seemingly endless.

  6. I am the developer for, a hosted CMS for small business websites. Everything is not perfect, but we pay a lot of attention to accessibility for both the front end and the back end of our solutions.

  7. I’ve been involved with several projects using Sava (formerly Synopsis) and it’s a very accessibility-aware CMS. I think Sava’s dev team really has really taken valid, accessible markup and CSS into account when developing the CMS.

  8. June 6, 2007 by Schalk Neethling

    I am in the process of developing an open source CMS system that is built from the ground up to be accessible and standards compliant in all areas. Of course doing this alone, it is taking a lot of time.

    So, I hope this does not go down as advertising but, if anyone is interested in joining the effort and get this CMS out of the door, the project is managed at:

    Look forward to hearing from everyone. This is surely an area that is lacking in a big way.

  9. We went down the route of building our own CMS, basically we get to deal with all of these issues ourselves and aren’t reliant on external suppliers, either closed or open source.

    We’re constantly looking to improve it, one of the biggest problems is the output of wysiwyg editors, there’s not many that do a truly good job, there’s always some drawback. The holy grail is something that is easy for clients to use but creates clean, accessible code!

    The back-end is something we’re looking to improve upon in regards to accessibility but up till now our focus has been primarily on the front end site output.

    I’m interested to say what experiences people have with different wysiwyg editors.

  10. This is something I’ve been regularly confronted with in my career thus far - large CMS work. And the problem is nearly always Javascript and the over reliance on it.

    Their is also an issue of understanding - most CMS products are simply not setup for a large number of editors editing 1000’s of pages. It’s the reason why lots of small organisations roll their own and why large companies still tend to buy what has worked previously for other large companies.

    Enterprise CMS projects then. The problem here is often they do go through a vendor selection process. But from my experience these are generally dealt with from a marketing angle - meaning ‘technical’ considerations like Accessibility are left out.

  11. At my job we use our own CMS too, which we incorporate in all our work. It’s really flexible and let’s you adjust the code output so you can get very good, clean and accessible code. The only thing bugging me is that TinyMCE leaves some of the accessibility up to the author of the content. Our site is not updated, but a new version is going through testing. KeyPublisher

  12. Good of you to bring this to attention Roger as this is obviously an area not well considered. I would add that Textpattern is a very powerful CMS entirely aimed at producing standards-compliant markup - the very reason we use it above others. I cant agree with juicy Studio’s appraisal and from the somewhat dismissive suggestion that Textpattern is merely a blogging tool, I’d suggest perhaps they didnt appraise it perhaps as well as some of their favourites. I for one find Joomla and Mambo a nauseating nightmare but thats just me.

  13. this is someone I know

    he is very good on web accessibility

    maybe worth a look

  14. My work is in the process of choosing a CMS, they have done up a selection criteria and everything. As a web geek, I had a look at it and was surprised to see that accessability and coded correctly HTML was not one of the important in the criteria and seeing this is the case hear and probably elsewhere most CMS generated websites will probably stay mistake riddled and un-accessible etc

  15. I went searching for accessible CMSs a while ago and this was what I came up with:

    I can’t say whether the back-end is as accessible as they claim their front-end output to be because I didn’t get around to demoing most of them.

  16. For CMS and portal products, my rough guide is “the bigger the company, the worse their markup”. So far not a single off-the-shelf product has disproved this.

    I think there are a couple of reasons…

    • A few of the really big vendors transitioned from building desktop apps and never really shifted their thinking from that environment
    • They tend to just leave the frontend to the programmers, instead of hiring on specialist developers and information architects
    • As far as accessibility is concerned, some big companies seem to take the view “it’s cheaper to just pay off complaints than fix the product”

    The only way to change this is if all the clients start demanding real accessibility and standards compliance, AND check that they really get it. Some of the worst table-based muck I’ve ever seen is proudly sold as “accessible” - presumably because they have alt text (the only accessibility feature I could find).

  17. Silverstripe CMS & Framework has a good usable Admin Interface. Further it’s a FOSS solution.

  18. June 6, 2007 by Florian

    I just stumbled over Typolight. It seems very promising. The Developer is very open to proposals. His goal is a CMS wich is accessible both in the Front- and the Backend. And he is doing a very good job so far.

  19. I would like to point out a terribly inaccessible and non-standards complient enterprise CMS for people to stear clear of. The nature of the organisation I work for means that vast amounts of data are processed daily. As such we have a contract with Oracle, which means we get their Portal software at a reduced cost to host our Intranet.

    It is a horrible platform, which mainly uses pasted MS Word documents as the basis for content, and ad-hock insertion of HTML and JavaScript to make so-called HTML Portlets. It really isn’t nice to use, and the code produced is a horrible table layout mess that harks back to 1997.

  20. Check out Modx :

  21. I think ATAG is a great rallying point for all of us bloggers/developers to go to authoring tool manufactures and say we want their tools to be ATAG compliant. Life will get even better when ATAG 2.0 comes out.

  22. Not exactly a CMS, but Django’s built-in admin is like a breath of fresh air.

  23. We’ve just finished our new CMS called Publer and been installing it on a few of our clients websites. It consists of valid XHTML and CSS and is optimized for accessibility and search engines, i.e. through the use of prettyurls. We’re currently working on Publer’s own website whick should launch soon.

    An Example of a site using Publer is which enables visitors to register and sell their house online for free.

  24. I have worked with several enterprise level CMS systems, but have yet to find one that is accessible.

    Does anyone know of an enterprise level CMS that is ASP.NET based rather than PHP and is also standards compliant?

  25. I’ve spent hours and hours sifting through the open source CMS’s but never finding one that suited me fine. So I ended up developing my own, mainly because I needed a CMS that runs on Coldfusion. The available CMS’s where all too expensive or just didn’t meet standards. So now I have my own CMS that runs just about any site you can imagine. And being a Standardista it’s very accessible and very webstandard ;-) It really isn’t that hard accomplishing those things!

    And if I may, a little self-promoting: so many people and friends I knew had this same issue with their websites that I’ve decided to include the CMS in my recently started little hosting company (click my name to go to the website). So maybe one day this CMS can be used by many more of you ;-)

  26. a typo in my previous post: it should be

  27. @Damian Proctor: I only know of one CMS that is ASP.NET based and claims to be standard complient (allthough their own site isn’t). It’s Umbraco, a danish Open Source CMS. I haven’t used it myself though.

    Then there is also EPiServer, but i think it needs a lot of tweaking to deliver valid HTML.

    It would be nice to hear about more ASP.NET based CMS since the company I work for is currently in the process of trying to find one.

  28. June 7, 2007 by JohnB

    Check out Drupal. It’s a very flexible system with a rather large community. I liked it because it has a learning curve and high coding standards. Those standards include accessibility and usability concerns.

    A usability report was written last summer for version 4.7. They are at version 5 now and fixed some of the items in the report. But, the fact that they have a report shows that usability is a big concern for the project.

    There is also a Drupal Accessibility group.

  29. June 7, 2007 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Ok, seems like I have a few CMS suggestions to take a look at when time permits :-).


    Umbraco is a special case among ASP.NET based CMS:s as its development team actually cares about Web standards and accessibility. I haven’t evaluated the admin interface though.

    EPiServer is possible to base an accessible website on as long as you replace the default templates and introduce a few other workarounds (we use it at my dayjob, which we wouldn’t if it wasn’t possible), but the admin interface is IE/Win only and a long, long way from being accessible.

    JohnB: Drupal looks like it can be tweaked to create an accessible website. I don’t know about the admin interface though - I haven’t checked.

  30. Why do you care if the admin interface of an CMS is accessible or not? I am usually a devotee of accessibility and internet standards (guess I wouldn’t be reading this post if i weren’t), but aren’t you exaggerating a bit here?

    As I see it, the typical web based CMS admin interface is merely a product of the CMS developers not knowing how to implement a standard desktop application for the purpose. Since the application is for internal use within organizations, conforming with web standards does not seem that important.

    I am aware that there are implementations where the CMS admin interface might be shared between a larger group of “unorganized” comitters, thus my assertions above might not apply well to all cases.

    Please let me know if I am overlooking something essential here :)

  31. June 7, 2007 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)


    Why do you care if the admin interface of an CMS is accessible or not?

    Because people with disabilities also want or need to be able to use CMS:s to publish content.

  32. Joern: disabled employees, perhaps?

  33. There are some new names listed in the comments section that I will have to check out. I have only been in the market for open source solutions, so perhaps this is why I am not aware of many of these listed.

    I am running several sites with Drupal and Joomla!. I like both and wish they would get married and have a child; then we’d be close to perfection.

    BTW, several of the comments above seem to be referring to “blog ware,” and perhaps that requires a whole different evaluation and discussion.

    But Roger’s initial observation regarding the usability of the back-end is a considerable problem, and so often overlooked.

    What’s not mentioned, and this I keep repeating, is that you can create the most accessible CMS application, that produces wonderfully standards-based and accessible code, but any user can still mess up the output with bad input or unintentionally leaving out things like alt text, rendering the output inaccessible. So, we also need to be out there continually teaching users about accessibilty and why it is necessary.

    PS: BTW, there is a fork team who have build an accessible version of Joomla! that’s pretty good. See:

  34. Ellen:

    I like Symphony (open source) a lot.

    I couldn’t agree more! Symphony is a wonderful CMS!

  35. June 8, 2007 by Erik Töyrä

    The company I work for relies heavily on the fact that the CMS can handle multilingual content very well. I also needed XML import/export, high level of accessibility and it should be open source.

    With that in mind I made a two month testing of Silva, Midgard CMS, Sapid, Plume, Drupal, Plone, Typo3, Joomla and Xaraya. The ones that made the cut was Joomla, Drupal and Midgard CMS. I started with Joomla, which seemed to be promising when it comes to accessibility, but soon discovered that if was made upp of a horrible mess of bloated markup. The HTML Joomla outputs is horrible and you need to hack the core files to make it accessible - which makes it a real pain to upgrade Joomla in the future. Avoid Joomla 1.0.x at all cost if you wan’t your site to be accessible and output nice markup.

    Then I gave Drupal a chance. What Drupal has, and Joomla doesn’t have, is a very good template engine, called PHPTemplate. It’s true that Drupal by default can output some horrible markup from certain modules. (Found a module that outputed five nested div’s just to show a simple “headline”.) Most of the time Drupal gives you a nice, rather clean markup to work with. But if you’re not satisfied you can override the functions that generates the output and write your own markup. I have found Drupal to be very potent when it comes to web standards and the possibility to make a site accessible.

    There is also a very interesting blog cms out there called Symphony. It uses XML formatted with XSLT to generate the output which gives you as a developer a lot of freedom and really can do whatever you want with the markup.

  36. Hi there

    We (at Interesource) have our own in-house CMS called IrPublish and have no problems with output code being accessible but do have problems with making the editor accessible for users, due to the necessary JavaScript. We looked into XStandard as a plugin solution, but according to our developers here there are too many problems with it:

    1.It has to be on the user’s machine, so we need to get corporate IT involved (this means we can no longer boast ‘you only need a modern browser’) which isn’t ideal. 2. It didn’t run on Mac OS X at the time we evaluated. 3. Extensibility is not that great - we need to be able to plug in all sorts of toolbar buttons and manipulate the HTML that is injected to the document. 4. The Price - people need to buy the full version which is not attractive

    Any other ideas for a solution?

  37. June 8, 2007 by shane

    ModX seems to be good at this. I have just started using it and it looks very promising. Surprised it was not mentioned yet.

  38. Roger and Elaine:

    As stated in my previous post, I do care a lot about accessibility, and I do indeed agree in your joint statement about disabled users.

    However I would like to test my point once again: If the same applications (CMS admin interfaces) were implemented as normal “desktop” software (Windows Forms eg.), would we have the same focus on accessibility then?

    I am not saying that you are doing anything wrong in wanting an accessible and standards compliant CMS incl. admin interface — I would prefer such myself. I just find it striking that, just because a given application is implemented using internet technologies, it receives extended requirements for being accessible.

    Can you follow and my line of thinking, or am I just completely off track in my assumptions?

  39. I do quite a few CMS assessments for clients using ATAG, and can say that most so far:

    1. Are capable of producing accessible & valid markup, with varying levels of effort.
    2. Do not help or encourage authors in producing or maintaining accessible content.
    3. Are not accessible themselves.

    (These are the main principles of the ATAG guidelines.)

    My company also produces Defacto which someone mentioned above, which is back-end accessible (noting that JavaScript is required for the WYSIWYG editor only).

    What may disappoint people here is that we provide is as a hosted service. However, we are establishing a partership program for people who know how to do accessible front-end code but need an easy to use CMS for their clients.

  40. Roger, it’s awesome that you keep pushing this. After all, it was our meeting two years that really got me into standards and from there accessibility (I guess you’d still remember me saying “alt tag” back then right ;-)).

    I’m the founder of umbraco (the ASP.NET open source CMS), so I can share a little light on this topic from a producer perspective. I think the most important thing is to ensure that a CMS keeps logic and presentation totally separate. Because we do this with umbraco, you are in completely charge of the output in the same way as if you’re using notepad. I have no idea why any cms would choose another path, but this is certainly not the default unfortunately.

    Our own website is a nightmare and a horrible showcase, lucky a new totally standard complaint and accessible website will finally see the light this month (we’ve been wanting this ever since our visit to Göteborg two years ago).

    On the admin interface side, we got a lot of stuff to do and the main word here is legacy. Some of the UI code in the admin interface is back from the days of IE5.5 (oh horror - after a recent js clean up we discovered lines that started with document.all ;-)).

    Our plan for accessiblity in the admin interface is a multiple step process. The first one has been to ensure that you can edit content outside umbraco, either through 3rd party tools via webservices or via a simple form that can be made really fast via our api. This way you can have a very simple, task focused and accessible form as a supplement to the whole tool.

    This doesn’t give full control but makes it much easier for people who needs an accessible solution to update content. The next step is to re-write the UI. This has been planned anyway mostly due to the legacy mentioned above. While reading “Web Accessibility” (by Thatcher, Burks and others) I’ve learned a lot about web accessiblity that will be taken into account, but I don’t think we’ll have a completely accessible backend (again - this has absolutely nothing to do with the frontend or the real “website” as they’re completely separated). I do however need to read up on providing accessible ajax, as this is my main worry about creating an accessible ui, but I do think the idea that people can actually create an accessible editing alternative using the api in hours (not weeks) is the best solution.

    What do you think of that approach, Roger?

  41. June 11, 2007 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)


    Regarding XStandard, I agree that it can be a real hassle to install, especially with more organisations using tighter security. That is basically the only issue I have with XStandard. There is a Mac version available now.

    A possible solution to the accessibility problem is to offer a textarea alternative to a WYSIWYG editor.


    I just find it striking that, just because a given application is implemented using internet technologies, it receives extended requirements for being accessible.

    Well, if it uses Web technology, Web accessibility requirements apply. And there are accessibility requirements for desktop apps as well.

    shane: MODx is not very good when it comes to admin accessibility I’m afraid.

    Hartvig: It’s excellent that you are actively working on making Umbraco’s admin interface as accessible as possible. Your approach sounds reasonable. I’d suggest looking into providing options for the areas that cannot be made fully accessible.

  42. I have actually heard good things about Joomla, and have worked with it in the design aspect (which was weird, but it worked out well in the end). I’m sure there are far better CMS solutions out there though.

  43. Django isn’t really a CMS, it’s a web app framework that makes building custom CMSes very easy, thanks to it’s automatic admin interface. And, that admin interface is very accessible, tanks to it having been written in compliant, semantic XHTML.

Comments are disabled for this post (read why), but if you have spotted an error or have additional info that you think should be in this post, feel free to contact me.