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'Talking' Tax Forms Aid Visually Impaired - 2002-09-25


There's a well-worn saying that there are two things in life you cannot avoid: death and taxes. Now the Internal Revenue Service is offering new on-line talking forms to make paying taxes easier for the visually impaired. Advocates for the blind have welcomed the IRS service but say what they really need is help getting jobs.

Thousands of taxpayers have grown accustomed to filling out their annual tax forms online, using what is known as a portable document form or PDF. But that access was not available to an estimated 14 million visually impaired U.S. residents until now.

"A blind person could not access or complete any PDF form prior to this. They had to have someone else do it for them," he said. "Somebody could have someone else download a form, complete it and fill it in but they couldn't do it themselves."

Michael Moore is chief of the IRS Alternative Media Center. And he is happy to show off the new on-line talking tax form he says will break through the accessibility barrier for blind taxpayers.

As he clicks on each line of the questionnaire, the computer voices what a sighted person would read on the screen.

Mr. Moore, who is visually impaired himself, explains that the screen-reading program adapted for the IRS uses a computer speech synthesizer program to recognize and read out loud all the words on the PDF form.

"To summarize, for the very first time blind employees of the IRS and taxpayers can actually complete the same forms as everybody else has access too," he said.

The IRS has eight forms running now on-line expects to make 50 of the most common on-line IRS forms available by the start of next year. Mr. Moore says the IRS is the first government agency to provide the service.

At the National Federation of the Blind, Technology Director Curtis Chong welcomes the new program, which he calls a first step in the right direction. Mr. Chong says blind taxpayers may not use it right away just because most usually pay an accountant to do it for them.

"But over time, five or ten years from now, when electronic filing becomes more a thing that people will feel comfortable doing, then this will enable us to keep pace with our sighted peers," he said. "To us, in the National Federation of the Blind, that's the most important thing, keeping pace with our sighted peers."

Mr. Chong, who is blind himself, is encouraged by the IRS development but says his top priority is using technology to help the blind find jobs.

"We're faced with a 74 percent unemployment rate, which means a lot of my people don't pay taxes," he said. "So, the National Federation of the Blind believes of greater importance are programs that help us to get training and jobs."

Mr. Chong says computer technology also can help the blind in the workplace. But, he says more user-friendly programs like the IRS service need to be developed.

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