IRS makes tax forms accessible

From electronic tax filing to a hip, slightly humorous Web site, the Internal Revenue Service has been trying to use the Internet to boost its efficiency and spruce up its image.

It was with some chagrin that IRS officials discovered a few years ago that it was impossible to put fully accessible tax forms online.

Although there are hundreds of instruction documents, notices, announcements and other publications online that are accessible to blind and visually impaired taxpayers, there are no accessible tax forms.

That's because tax forms are posted in PDF files, which cannot be read by screen readers used by the blind and visually impaired.

"The forms issue is a difficult one," said Michael Moore, chief of the IRS' Alternative Media Center, a special unit created to solve this and other information technology problems. It turns out that "no one in government has accessible PDF forms," he said.

Or no one did until now.

After more than a year's work on the problem, the Alternative Media Center and Adobe Systems Inc. have created tax forms that can be read by screen readers.

So far, five forms have been tested and shown to work, and another 10 or so are ready to be tested, Moore said. The IRS plans to make accessible versions of the 50 most requested forms available for tax season next spring, he said.

The problem with PDF forms is that screen readers are designed to read traditional text, but PDF forms typically use much more complex arrangements of text, which screen readers find hard to follow.

Adobe solved part of the problem with its Acrobat Reader Version 5.0, which supports features such as high-contrast viewing and compatibility with third-party screen readers. But screen readers still have trouble reading PDF contents in the correct order. Information arranged in columns, for example, can confuse a screen reader.

Another problem is that screen readers do not always differentiate between instructions telling a taxpayer how to fill out the form and labels intended to guide screen reader users. Thus the screen reader might read a line that says "name" and a label that says "put your name here." The result can be a garbled audio message.

Now Adobe and the IRS have solved that problem, according to Moore and Greg Pisocky, an accessibility specialist at Adobe.

A new Adobe forms-authoring tool named Tea Party (in honor of the tax agency, Pisocky said) better integrates form contents and tag descriptions to eliminate screen reader confusion. Tea Party will be released in late July, Pisocky said.

Although other formats could be used to create accessible tax forms, the IRS has decided against abandoning PDF because Adobe provides Acrobat Reader free to anyone who wants to download it, Moore said.

And now that the IRS has the problem of accessible PDFs under control, it is anxious to share the solution with other agencies. "We've hit what we feel is a true breakthrough with this," he said.

"All agencies have tons of forms that have not been accessible," Moore said. In addition to the forms that agencies use to do business with the public, there are piles of personnel forms that could be made accessible and processed online, he said.

The Alternative Media Center is working on another innovative technology: digital talking books. Moore said the IRS soon might be able to make all of its documents available on CD-ROM in formats that would be readable by computers or other digital devices.

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