Next year, tax forms will talk

In the next filing season, about 50 tax forms will talk to disabled users.

The IRS Alternate Media Center has developed speech-friendly tax forms that will be accessible to the visually impaired on the IRS Web site, said Mike Moore, the center’s chief.

The agency has about 800 forms available in Adobe Portable Document Format at www.irs.gov.

Tax forms in PDF format are electronic images of the forms that users can print and fill out as any other paper form, but they do not lend themselves to nongraphical representation.

The format has posed problems for agencies looking to make their Web sites comply with Section 508 requirements for accessibility, but IRS has no immediate plans to change the format.

“It’s graphical and we in the government did not know what to do with accessibility,” Moore said.

Instead, the tax agency is looking to make the most of the new accessibility features of Adobe Acrobat Version 5.0. The IRS issued a task order to Plexus Scientific Corp. of Chicago to come up with about five speech-friendly forms.

The task order was part of a five-year, $11 million contract. Plexus and Adobe worked together to come up with the forms, which have been tested by the IRS, Moore said.

“The key thing was to be able to navigate and move through forms, go up and down,” said Cyril St. Martin, general manager for the IT division at Plexus Scientific. “Critical was having descriptors that would move them from one field to the other.”

The IRS has put eight forms on its Web site for testing, including forms 1040, 1040A and 1040EZ, with short text descriptions for various fields, Moore said.

The agency will test the forms until December, after which it will incorporate changes. Its 50 most popular forms will be made speech-friendly and put on the Web site for the next filing season.

Users need Adobe Acrobat 5.0 and a speech synthesizer that complies with Microsoft Active Accessible software.

The IRS has tested the forms with versions 4.2 and 4.5 of JAWS speech synthesizer software from Freedom Scientific Inc. of St. Petersburg, Fla., and Window-Eyes 4.2 from GW Micro Inc. of Fort Wayne, Ind.

Moore said the forms also should work with other Active Accessible-compliant speech synthesizers. The agency expects to have problems with some speech synthesizers, but plans to address them as they arise.

Since tax laws change every year, forms often must be changed quickly, Moore said. Adobe has created software, yet to be released in the market, for the center to compare the original and changed forms to detect the changes and implement them in the speech-friendly forms.

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