IRS deploys talking tax forms

It speaks in a robotic monotone, progressing relentlessly, item by item, line by line. It's not something you'd want to listen to often, but once a year should do it for most people.

Lend an ear to the Internal Revenue Service's new talking tax form.

The screen readers used by people with visual impairments can now read electronic versions of the 1040A and the 1040EZ forms. And by the end of the year, the IRS plans to rework 25 to 50 of the most frequently downloaded tax forms so that taxpayers who are blind or have other visual impairments can fill them out online.

Making electronic tax forms, produced in PDF format and accessible to screen readers, is "a true breakthrough," said Michael Moore, head of the IRS' Alternative Media Center. It took the tax agency and two contractors more than a year to accomplish the feat.

Screen readers are designed to read text files, but PDFs are image files and therefore meaningless to screen readers.

Adobe Systems Inc., the PDF's inventor, and Plexus Scientific Corp. have worked with the IRS to develop software that can make the screen readers PDF-accessible. Called Adobe PDF Forms Access, the software will sell for $99 a copy at Adobe's online store.

PDF Forms Access helps users quickly convert standard PDF forms into an accessible form. Conversion work that used to take eight hours now can be done in one hour, said Sean Conley, a senior product manager at Adobe.

"The tool allows you to capture the structure" of a PDF document "and then modify it," said Cyril St. Martin, information technology chief at Plexus. That means that forms do not have to be re-created from scratch, which saves time, he said.

The ability to make PDF forms accessible has already caught the attention of several federal agencies. Officials at the Social Security Administration, the Agriculture and Justice departments, and the House of Representatives have all expressed interest in the new software, said Greg Pisocky, an accessibility specialist at Adobe.

In a little over a year from now, federal agencies will face a key deadline. By Oct. 21, 2003, they must allow individuals and entities to submit information and conduct transactions electronically, as required by the Government Paperwork Elimination Act.

And under Section 508 requirements, agencies must make their computer systems, Web pages and electronic documents accessible to people with disabilities.

The talking 1040A and 1040EZ may not sound great to the untrained ear, "but if you're used to listening to synthesized speech, the end result is good," said Doug Wakefield, a government accessibility expert for the U.S. Access Board who helped write the Section 508 standards.

And the forms should sound better soon, St. Martin said. "The technology is improving, literally, month by month."

There are limits to improvement, however. Users who were asked by the IRS to evaluate the new forms asked why the forms couldn't calculate their taxes, as commercial tax preparation software does, Moore said.

But under pressure from the tax preparation industry, the IRS has been barred from adding that feature.

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