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 Article of Interest - Visual Impairments

'Talking' Tax Forms For Blind Developed

PDF-Reading Software Boosts Independence

by Helen Rumbelow, Washington Post, Friday, August 30, 2002

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A significant advance in the independence and privacy of blind people has come from what many might think an unlikely source -- the Internal Revenue Service.


When blind people complain about their tax return, it is not for the usual reasons. Until now, most federal forms and many reports posted on the Internet -- a growing line of communication between the government and its citizens -- have been out of bounds to the country's 14 million visually impaired.


A Braille version doesn't work because the sighted people receiving the form cannot understand it. "Screen- reading" software that reads text out loud cannot cope with forms and other reports using "PDF" -- Portable Document Format. The screen-reader can't read PDF because it views the screen as a picture rather than words.


This has frustrated visually impaired people who have wanted to take advantage of government online services, from applying for jobs to researching a homework project.


The new IRS forms, which the IRS plans to post on its Web site ( next year, use pioneering software that allows the standard talking text services to read forms stored in PDF.


"It may seem like just a tax form, but we've hit what we believe is a true breakthrough, important because blind people want to be independent," said Michael Moore, chief of alternative media at the IRS, and legally blind himself. "What blind people are striving for is equal access."


The software was developed by Plexus Scientific Corp. in conjunction with the agency. The IRS is demonstrating the "talking tax form" next week to other agencies that are also grappling with the problem of making their online services accessible to the visually impaired.


Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which went into effect in June last year, requires all federal agencies to make their systems, Web sites and documents accessible to those with disabilities. A recent survey by San Francisco State University and PricewaterhouseCoopers found that 87 percent of federal Web sites still fail to meet accessibility standards required by law.


Moore recently showed how the program works. When he clicks on the "talking" version of the1040EZ tax form on the IRS Web site, his normal screen-reader begins to read the first line in its electronic monotone.


"First name," it says, and Moore responds by typing in the box; he also has the option of speaking his name and having the computer convert it into text.


"Some people are surprised that there isn't already a way for blind people to use these forms, but it's finally happened," Moore said. "We're the first doing this in government; as far as I know, the first in the world to be able to make PDF forms accessible."


Curtis Chong, director of technology for the National Federation of the Blind, said PDF has been a pet-hate of many blind people for years.


"When forms started to go up online, we got really excited, but when we went to look at them on places like the IRS Web site, we found we couldn't use them," Chong said. "If this does what it promises then there is some real groundbreaking potential here. It's not just about saving the money for an accountant, but privacy and independence and getting access to information."


The problem of computer accessibility is also important to the IRS, Moore said, because it has actively recruited blind workers. The agency has 1,100 employees who are blind or have low vision, 1 percent of its workforce.


Soon after Section 508 came into effect, the IRS asked Plexus Scientific to try and crack the problem of PDF. The project cost around $1 million, with much of the funds contributed by Adobe Systems Inc., the makers of PDF.


Doug Wakefield, in charge of Section 508 at the federal Access Board, said this new software is "crucial" to making government more accessible.


"This will have a very significant impact . . . There have been other attempts to make PDF forms accessible, but they haven't been taken up because they have been too expensive," he said.


The IRS hopes to have 50 of the most common forms in "talking" format for next tax season. It will cost the agency a one-time payment of about $2,000 per form for Plexus to convert them.


Leonard Newman, project manager at Plexus Scientific, said the problem with PDF was that even when the screen-reader was persuaded to read the text, it read it as a jumble, mixing up text with no sense of the flow of the form. By putting special computer tags in the form, Plexus was able to create a kind of road map for the screen-reader, instructing it where to pause to allow the blind person to fill in his or her details, and telling it which box followed next.


"The joke here is that it is the first time you want the IRS talking to you," Newman said.


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