Get To Know Your WordPress Dashboard With A Screen Reader

Screenshot of the WordPress dashboard
The WordPress dashboard is the first screen you encounter after you log into WordPress. In this tutorial, I’ll help you learn your way around it while using a screen reader by providing a detailed tour, and showing you how to customize it so that the WordPress dashboard shows you all of what you need to see, and none of what you don’t.

We’re going to cover a lot of ground

This tutorial covers a lot of material. The WordPress dashboard is the hub of all the activity that happens on your site, and so it presents a lot of information. Think of it as Grand Central Station for your WordPress installation. Since this is a tutorial on the hub of your site, in order for it to be useful, it has to cover a lot. So grab something to sip on because this is going to be a long read.

What is the WordPress dashboard?

Think of the WordPress dashboard as the home screen or desktop of your WordPress installation. It’s the first place you land when you log in to WordPress, and it gives you an overview of your site and its activity at a high level. It also gives you a glance at what’s going on with WordPress development, as well as some of the things going on in the wider WordPress community.

First contact with the WordPress dashboard

There are six things that every WordPress administration screen has in common, and the WordPress dashboard is no different. These are:

  • The skip links
  • The administration menu
  • The tool bar
  • The help tab
  • The screen options tab
  • Admin notices

The skip links

After you log into WordPress, the first thing you’ll find when navigating with a screen reader is a set of skip links. The first skip link allows you to skip past the menu and move straight to the main content of the screen. The next item down is a skip link that allows you to skip to the tool bar. We’ll go into what the tool bar is in more depth later on, but for now keep in mind that this is the second in a series of two skip links.

While skip link usage is very mixed among screen reader users, WordPress includes skip links for users who navigate with a keyboard alone, whether out of necessity or preference, or who use other assistive technology that mimics keyboard interaction. The WordPress community strives to make WordPress as accessible and usable for as wide a population as possible, so skip links are included as part of the accessibility effort since accessibility is not just about screen reader users.

If you prefer not to use the skip links, you can use your screen reader’s headings navigation shortcut key to navigate to the first heading on the screen. This command may vary from screen reader to screen reader, so if you’re not sure how to navigate by headings, check your screen readers documentation for specifics.

The WordPress administration menu

Next, you’ll find the WordPress administration menu. This menu, along with the two skip links just covered, is part of every WordPress administration screen, and it contains everything you need to add content to, and configure, your WordPress-powered site.

The WordPress administration menu is collapsible, and contains collapsible submenus. It is also responsive, meaning that it will respond to the screen size of the device you’re viewing it on and collapse or expand accordingly.

What if I want to make sure the menu is expanded?

If you’re accessing your WordPress dashboard from a desktop, and you want to make sure the menu stays expanded, along with the submenus, first make sure that your screen is maximized. This will give you complete access to the menu as well as all its submenus. If you decide later on that you want to collapse the menu to get it out of the way, there’s a handy link you can use to expand and collapse the menu whenever you want. Secondly, make sure that your display is configured for landscape mode instead of portrait mode.

Why does it matter how my computer’s display is configured?

As previously mentioned, the WordPress dashboard is responsive, meaning that it will resize to fit the screen on which it’s being displayed. Screens set to display in portrait mode don’t provide very much space, and the WordPress dashboard as well as other WordPress administration screens contain a lot of content. So on smaller screens, the side menu is collapsed by default, and since there’s not enough room to keep it expanded without making the rest of the content invisible, the menu and submenus are collapsed to ensure that everything in the main content area can be displayed, and that the menu is unobtrusive.

As a screen reader user, (at least on Windows), it’s very easy to accidentally switch your screen from landscape to portrait on most modern laptops without knowing you’ve done so, because screen readers typically don’t provide any feedback that your screen orientation has changed. For example, if you run one of the blindness-specific Twitter clients, (which use ctrl+left, right, up and down arrows on Windows 8 or below), and you either don’t have the client running or you’re waiting on the client to finish starting because you have an extra large database of tweets, the likelihood is that you’ll change this setting, because these are common shortcuts for changing screen orientation, and this will in turn effect how the WordPress dashboard and other administration screens are displayed. This is a minor annoyance when it comes to the menu being collapsed or expanded, but it begins to matter when it comes to the “Screen Options” and “Help” tabs, because they are not displayed when the WordPress back end is displaying in mobile view. The specific steps you need to take to re-orient your screen using the Windows graphical user interface will depend on the version of Windows you’re running, but the settings are typically found under “Display” in your control panel. So if you log into WordPress, and you find that your menu is collapsed, you may want to check to ensure that your screen is oriented in landscape mode.

The order of the menu

Out of the box, the WordPress administration menu is arranged as follows.

Dashboard

The first section you’ll encounter when moving through the administration menu is the “Dashboard” section. This submenu gives you a way to get to your WordPress dashboard from any place within your WordPress administration screens. It also is the submenu you’ll choose when you need to update WordPress and the themes and plugins you have installed.

Posts

“Posts” is the submenu you’ll choose when you want to add or edit posts on your WordPress-powered site. It’s also where you’ll be able to add or edit categories and tags.

Media

The next submenu within the WordPress administration menu is “Media”. Like “Posts”, this submenu gives you a quick way to access all of your media, (meaning everything you’ve uploaded to your media library), as well as add new media to your site. “Library” is where you’ll go to access all your media, and “Ad new” is where you’ll go to add new media.

Pages

“Pages” is the submenu you’ll choose when you want to add or edit pages on your site. Unlike posts, pages are static content. They are not displayed chronologically like posts are, and they stand on their own, unlike posts, which are arranged in descending chronological order on your site’s blog and other archive pages.

Comments

Next comes the “Comments” section. Here is where you’ll go to work with any comments left on your posts and pages. From here, you’ll be able to moderate comments, edit them, reply to them or delete them.

Appearance

This section is where you’ll go to make any visual changes to your site, including choosing or uploading a theme, customizing a theme, adding widgets, and, if your theme supports them, adding background and header images. You’ll also add menus to your site from this section. Finally, you’ll find the theme editor, which allows you to edit individual templates as well as the CSS for your theme from your WordPress administration screens.

Plugins

“Plugins” is the submenu you’ll use to view the plugins you have installed, add new ones, and edit plugin files from the WordPress administration screens.

Users

“Users” is the section of your WordPress administration screen where you’ll be able to view all user accounts for your site, add new ones, or edit your user profile.

Tools

The “Tools” submenu is where you’ll find what you need to do things like setting up the “Press This” bookmarklet, converting tags to categories and vice versa, and importing and exporting the content of your site.

Settings

Finally, the last section you’ll encounter in the WordPress administration menu is the “settings” section. While everything else overviewed here provides settings for specific aspects of your site, the “settings” submenu is where you’ll find all the configurations that effect your site as a whole. This section includes general settings, settings for how content is written, settings for how content is displayed, and settings for comments. It also includes settings for how media is handled, and lastly, how permalinks are handled.

Your Milage May Vary

This is the order of the WordPress administration menu when your WordPress installation is fresh. However, this order can and will change, and there are three reasons for this.

  • themes and plugins add things,
  • The type of WordPress installation effects what you’ll see,
  • and the permissions you have as a user determines what you’ll see.

Themes and plugins add things

First, both plugins and themes can, (and often do) add things to the menu. so your menu may not look like this one at all. In fact, it likely won’t. This is because plugin and theme authors will add either top level menus, or items within already-existing submenus, so that users can take advantage of a plugin or theme’s features. If the plugin doesn’t have a lot of features, then its author will add a settings page to the “settings” submenu and leave it at that. But the more features a plugin has, the more settings and other options it needs. The same goes for theme authors, except themes packed with features will always require more than just a page of options added to the “settings” submenu. Ideally, theme authors will add their customization options to the customizer, but this assumes that their theme doesn’t include every option under the sun. Sadly, lots of themes do. All of this means that the WordPress administration menu’s layout can vary widely, and you’ll either need to be very familiar with what you have installed, or, if someone else has built the site for you, you’ll want to make sure they’ve shown you around before turning it over to you.

Single or multisite

The second reason the order of the WordPress administration menu can change depends on which kind of installation you have. This tutorial covers a single-site installation, but there’s also multisite to consider. WordPress multisite adds some additional options to the administration menu on a per-site basis, and it adds other options that you’ll only see if you’re logged in as a network administrator.

Who can do what

Finally, what you see in the WordPress administration menu is determined by the capabilities you have as a user. If you’re an administrator, you see everything. But every other user role restricts privileges to one degree or another, and so users designated with a role other than administrator will only see the items that match the capabilities they have.

The Tool Bar

Think of the tool bar as a series of quick links for your WordPress-powered site. It contains links to pages about WordPress, including credits and freedoms, links to create new posts and pages, add new plugins or users, review comments, and update alerts for the themes and plugins you have installed. As a screen reader user, I don’t find myself using the tool bar at all, since I’m familiar with where things are in the administration menu, but it’s there if you decide you want to add it to your workflow.

The help tab

The help tab is where you’ll go to get help and documentation specific to whichever administration screen you happen to be on. It provides links to the full documentation for each screen, as well as a link to the support forums. Think of the help tab as context-sensitive help for WordPress. Each administration screen has one, and themes and plugins will often add them as well so their authors can provide specific documentation.

The screen options tab

The screen options tab is where you’ll go to make any customizations to your administration screens without having to add any code. What you can customize depends on what screen you’re on. We’ll discuss what you can customize on the WordPress dashboard a bit later on in this tutorial.

Admin notices

Admin notices) are a way for plugin authors, theme authors, and WordPress itself to let you know that something’s changed and you may need to take action. There are three types of admin notices:

  • Update complete or success notices
  • update and other prompts
  • errors

Update complete or success notices

These notices let you know that a theme, plugin, or WordPress itself needs to be updated. On other screens, they also let you know that a task has been completed successfully, such as publishing a post, for instance.

Prompts

Prompt messages let you know that there’s an update available and you should install it, or advise you that there’s something else you might want to take care of. Commercial plugins and themes will sometimes use this type of message to let you know that your subscription has expired. These messages will also be used by plugin and theme authors, (commercial or free), to let you know that there are new features, and provide a way for you to view a changelog.

Errors

Error messages let you know something is wrong, although these are not always catastrophic. Plugin and theme authors, as well as WordPress itself, try to make these as friendly as possible so we don’t freak people out. They’ll alert you to things like problems with updates, but they’ll also alert you to needed settings changes in the case of plugins and themes so that all the features you’ve implemented on your site work together properly.

As of WordPress 4.2, admin notices can be made dismissible, and with a little work on the part of plugin and theme authors, WordPress will remember that you dismissed the notice.

The Meat of the WordPress Dashboard

Now that we’ve covered all the items each screen has in common, we can turn to the meat of the WordPress dashboard. This is where you’ll find all the high-level statistics about your site, and some quick ways to do things like moderate comments and write posts. It’s also where you can get a glance at what’s going on in the wider WordPress world if you choose.

The WordPress dashboard is broken into five sections called widgets.

  • At a Glance
  • Activity
  • Quick Draft
  • WordPress News and Events
  • Welcome

At a glance

The At a Glance widget provides a summary of the number of Posts, Pages, and Comments on your site. Each of these content types are displayed in the form of a link and, when the link associated with a particular type of content is activated, you’ll be directed to the specific area to manage that content.
A statement at the bottom of this widget tells you what WordPress Version you’re running on and the current theme you have activated on your site.

Activity

The “Activity” widget shows any upcoming scheduled posts, recently published posts, and the most recent comments on your posts. It also gives you the ability to moderate any of the comments shown. The title of the “Activity” widget is contained in a level-two heading, and this widget is divided into sections, with each section’s title contained in a level-three heading.

“Scheduled posts” shows you five of the posts you’ve scheduled for later publication. For most, this section will not show up, but if you’re working on a multi-author site, or you write content and schedule it according to an editorial calendar, this section is one you’ll see pretty regularly. Once there are no more scheduled posts, this section will disappear.

Recently Published” shows you the last five posts that have been published, with a link to each one that allows you to edit the post. The “Recent comments” section shows you the last five comments left on your site, with an excerpt of each one inside a block quote. Beneath the block-quoted text is a list of six links.

  • Approve (or unapprove) this comment
  • Reply to this comment
  • Edit this comment
  • Mark this comment as spam
  • Move this comment to the Trash
  • View this comment

By activating any of the above links, you’ll be able to take the action specified “View this comment”, for example, will take you to the comments section of the WordPress administration portion of your WordPress site so you can read the comment in its entirety before deciding what to do with it.

After this set of links, you’ll find a section that allows you to view more contents. It will give you an overview, like the “At a glance” widget does, of the number of comments you have and what state they’re in: all of them, or how many you have pending, for example.

Quick Draft

The “Quick Draft” widget allows you to easily add a post in draft form to your site. This widget contains a form with two fields. The first field is labeled “Title”, and this is where you’ll enter your draft’s title. The second field is labeled “What’s on your mind?”, and here is where you’ll enter the body of your post. Since this widget is only meant for you to be able to jot something down quickly and save it for later as a draft, you can’t do anything like add categories or tags. But it’s a great way to capture ideas for later posts. Think of it as a scratch pad for WordPress.

WordPress News and Events

This widget lists “the latest news from the official WordPress blog”.
Here you can find out what the WordPress developers have been up to recently and keep up with the latest WordPress related news. In addition to software developments, such as version announcements and security notices, news about the WordPress community in general is periodically posted.

Each article is linked, with its title as the link text, but there are no extra headings in this widget, so you’ll either need to tab through it or use your arrow keys to move through the list.

Along with the official WordPress blog, you’ll find links to selected talks from WordPress TV, which is where all WordCamp talks are posted and freely available for anyone to download and watch. You’ll also find links to information on WordPress’s mobile apps from WordPress.com, as well as the latest news from the WordPress Tavern, which is the biggest news source outside of WordPress.org itself.

As of WordPress 4.8, you can now search for local or semi-local WordPress-related events from the WordPress dashboard. WordPress has a thriving offline community, with people meeting in over four hundred cities around the world. Inclusiveness, (and yes, this includes accessibility), is an integral part of WordCamps as well as WordPress meetups, and these events can be an excellent way to network with the wider WordPress community, whether you’re just starting out or are a seasoned community member. The events section of the “WordPress News and Events” widget allows you to enter a city and find WordPress meetups and WordCamps near you.

Welcome

The last widget you’ll encounter on your WordPress dashboard is the welcome widget. While you may think “Welcome” is the first thing you should encounter, this widget should be thought of as a sort of quickstart guide for WordPress. It gives you quick links to the areas of your WordPress administration panel so you can take care of any first steps for building your site. Picture it as that moving checklist you get from your landlord when you first move into your new place combined with the inventory you get from the moving company, on top of going through your boxes to find the things you absolutely need right now. That’s the “welcome” widget in a nutshell.

Customizing your WordPress dashboard

The detailed tour above will help you find your way around your WordPress dashboard, but what if you don’t need all the widgets we talked about? What if you don’t care about WordPress news, or don’t think you’ll want to compose draft posts using the “Quick Draft” widget, or what if you want to hide the admin notices?

Fortunately WordPress provides several ways for you to quickly customize which widgets are displayed. This only applies to dashboard widgets, so you won’t be able to do something like remove the administration menu, but customizing what is displayed when you log into WordPress can be a great way to reduce clutter.

Screen options revisited

Earlier in this tutorial, we went over the “screen options” tab,, and I explained that this is where you’ll go to customize your WordPress dashboard.

To expand the screen options, press enter on the button that says “Screen options button collapsed”. Once you’ve done that, the contents of this tab will appear directly above the “Dashboard” heading.

This section of the screen has no headings of its own, so you won’t be able to use your headings navigation keys to move to it. You’ll either need to use the skip link at the top of the page, or navigate by region. Depending on which screen reader you’re running, as well as the version you’re running, you may have a keystroke for navigating by regions Check your screen reader’s documentation for specifics.

If you have a keystroke for navigating by region, the region you’re looking for is “Main”. Once there, you’ll see the “screen options” tab content. If you don’t have a keystroke for navigating by region, the skip link is an excellent fallback.

The “Screen options” tab contains several checkboxes. Each checkbox is labeled with the name of the widget or box it controls, and you can uncheck the boxes for the widgets you don’t want displayed. If you decide you want to display them again at some point, you can always go back in and check them again.

Once you’re done checking and unchecking boxes, press enter on the button that says “Screen options button expanded”, and the tab will collapse.

Mouse users can rearrange widgets, keyboard users cannot

There is one aspect of customizing the WordPress dashboard that keyboard users, (including screen reader users), cannot take advantage of. The ability to rearrange widgets so that they appear in a different order than the one that ships with WordPress. As a screen reader user, you may be tempted to contact the WordPress Accessibility Team, as a whole or individually, and ask that this be fixed. But before you advocate or criticize because you’re frustrated or angry that you have to get sighted assistance, please keep the following in mind.

We are already aware of the problem

The WordPress Accessibility Team is already aware that rearranging widgets on the WordPress dashboard is a problem, because it’s aware that almost every feature in WordPress that requires dragging and dropping is a problem. Drag-and-Drop functionality is a problem because it relies on a JavaScript library for which there is no accessible alternative, and which the WordPress Accessibility Team will have to fix. Since the team is working on WordPress accessibility voluntarily and on its own time, this is a slow process. So this will be fixed eventually, but it’s going to take time, and for now, you’ll have to get sighted assistance if you want to rearrange the order of the widgets on the dashboard.

Customizing the WordPress dashboard with a plugin

The “Screen Options” tab allows you to check and uncheck boxes to hide or display widgets. But if you want to add things to your dashboard that aren’t included with either WordPress or your active theme or plugins, you have the option of installing a plugin that will allow you to completely customize what’s seen on your dashboard. Dashboard Widgets Suite is an up-to-date plugin which provides a useful set of widgets that are helpful when it comes to managing your WordPress installation, including a PHP error log widget and a system info widget. There’s also a whole pile of free plugins that will allow you to do almost anything imaginable to the WordPress dashboard, including hiding it. And speaking of hiding,

Hiding Admin Notices

WordPress admin notices can be and often are useful, because as mentioned above, they let you know when you’ve successfully completed a task in WordPress, or that you have new updates to install. But they’re also used by themes and plugins that you can get for free in the WordPress repositories to do things like present upsells. This is fine in moderation, but it can get out of control very quickly, turning what is a clean and simple dashboard when you first start out into a hellscape of advertisements which can present some serious cognitive overload even if you don’t use any assistive technologies. Fortunately, there’s a plugin that fixes this by grabbing all your admin notices and hiding them away for you to view and take care of at your own convenience. Dobby rolls up all of your WordPress admin notices and keeps them hidden behind a “Reveal” button that toggles a color-coded list of notices into view. The plugin will post an admin notice if any notices have been captured. While the color coding won’t be useful to screen reader users, the hiding of everything behind one notice, (thereby decluttering your dashboard), definitely will. In fact, I’m thinking of installing this out of the box on every site I build for clients.

In this tutorial, I’ve provided a detailed tour of the WordPress dashboard, and shown you how to customize it with a screen reader. This should help you get started on managing your WordPress site more effectively.

Up next: manually backing up and updating WordPress, plugins and themes with a screen reader.


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