Accessible Tax Filing?

Ok, so today’s the day!  If you have not yet filed/paid your taxes, you are probably stressed out, dealing with headaches, scrambling to get your paperwork in order.  Many people still mail their tax forms and are going to brave long lines and post office traffic to get that April 15 postmark.  However, filing your taxes in this day of technology and convenience does not have to be as painful of a process as it used to be, or does it?

If you are blind or have a disability, you have an added stress when filing your taxes.  How will it get done?  Do I have to hire someone to fill out my forms?  If I mail it, I have to arrange for transportation to the post office.  Of course I have to get the information from my employer’s forms, receipts and bank statements, some of which I will have to have read to me.  I could file on line, but will I be able to do it independently, or will I still need help?

To begin answering these questions, the first place I visited was IRS.gov.  They have incorporated accessibility into their process, but you should know where to go to take advantage of these features.  First, do not try to view the forms that show up on the home page with a Screen Reader, these PDF’s are not accessible, some read as empty documents and others have unlabeled form fields and it will not be possible to fill them out.  If you visit the Accessibility page, you find that they have made forms available in various formats.  There are Braille and text versions, as well as talking forms that they give very specific instructions on how to use with JAWS.  However, some of these are for viewing only, so you know what information you need to have but you will still need help inputting it into a form that can be submitted.  You can leave user feedback, but be warned that the field for your comments is not correctly tagged.  It reads “Hours of operation,” where you should fill in your comment.

Then of course you have to pick an EFile company.  There are so many choices, but which if any of these will work for you?  You can use the IRS tool to choose a company that best fits your needs, but be sure to check or fill in something in each field.  If you don’t, it will not give you results and it is difficult to find and correct your mistakes.  You are not provided with immediate feedback as to the error or reason that it did not go through.  Whether or not you qualify for free filing, there are many websites and pieces of software you can use to leisurely file your taxes.  However, according to an article I found on WebAIM entitled, “Accessible Taxes? A Blind Consumer´s Experience with the US Tax System,” many of these conveniences are inaccessible for one reason or another.

Ultimately, you have to choose the best option for yourself, whether to file on your own and deal with the challenges/barriers you encounter, or have someone prepare and file for you.  There is some great information on AFB’s Senior site in the form of a short tax guide.  Also, Michael McCarty details his experience with TurboTax and his Screen Reader.  If you research the issue, you will get many opinions and experiences, so the best way is to give it a try.  However, given today’s date, you may want to run the experiment with next year’s taxes!

Educating Document Authors About Accessibility

For quite some time, Knowbility has offered a Document Remediation service through Access Works, our program that employs disabled vets and other people with disabilities.  Through several phases of repair, testing and quality assurance, we strive to provide accessible documents for our clients to publish on their websites.  We work with Microsoft Office files, as well as PDF’s that can be accessed through Adobe Acrobat.  It has been a great learning process, as we figure out the most efficient way to bring these documents into compliance with outlined accessibility guidelines.

Almost all of the issues we encounter with documents originate in their creation.  The authors are not thinking about accessibility when creating them and as a result, no matter what format they are rendered in, many people cannot access their information.  Often when our Remediation team gets a document, we do not have access to the original source file and it becomes very difficult to ensure its accessibility in a quick and easy fashion.  In some cases, the only way to make the document fully compliant would be to recreate it from the ground up.

This is an instance when once again, education is the key.  If document authors were to consider accessibility as they are creating them, there is a greater chance of everyone having access to the information.  It is a much easier process to make it accessible as you go, then to come in after the fact and try to fix it.  There is an excellent article by Deborah Kaplan and Monir ElRayes, entitled “Document Accessibility Should Begin at the Author Level.”  It is vital that we continue to reach out and educate people about accessibility.  This is not just a fad that will go away, it means access or the lack of for a growing percentage of the population!  If each of us thought even a little about accessibility as we create web content, software, hardware, etc, life would be better for everyone in the end.

CSUN and the iPhone

The day before CSUN, I opted to use my AT&T upgrade to get an iPhone.  As I have previously posted, I had played with a friend’s iPhone before, only for a few minutes and found it impossible to use.  However, after talking to other blind users of the product who were successful and raved about it, I decided to take a risk.  After all, I have 30 days from the purchase date to return it, so why not?  I was actually nervous, not a normal reaction for me when I get a new peace of technology.  I had one night to become familiar enough with it to make and answer calls, knowing I would need my cell phone quite a bit in San Diego.  I got a few helpful beginning tips from some visually impaired friends who had been using their units for quite some time.  I also did some research on Apple’s site to learn all about iPhone’s accessibility features.  While experimenting, I called several people in my contacts list by accident, sent a few blank or confusing text messages and somehow uninstalled the Voice-over screen reader and had to reset it up through iTunes.  Still, I persevered, eager to learn and overcome the challenges I was presented with.  Slowly, as time passed, my trepidation faded and I actually became very excited about all of the possibilities of the iPhone!

The first and most useful bits of information were the 1 and 2 finger double taps.  These are imperative gestures when using the iPhone with voiceover turned on, because nothing will activate unless you double tap with 1 finger.  From what I understand, Voice-over creates a little box that visually moves to each icon, number, letter, or button that you touch on the screen.  Whatever element that little box is around will be activated with a 1 finger double tap, which can be performed anywhere on the screen.  The 2 finger double tap is used when answering and ending a call (VERY IMPORTANT,) as well as playing and pausing music in the iPod.  You can perform this action anywhere on the screen in these two scenarios.

Other handy features include but are not limited to:

  • The ability to practice gestures and learn what they do in training mode.
  • Call people in your contacts or dial numbers with the built in voice control.
  • Set up tripple click home toggle to turn Voice-over on and off.
  • 2 finger swipe up to read the entire screen.
  • Moving or flicking 1 finger left and right to navigate through icons and menus.

Once I knew these little tricks, I could do anything and go anywhere on the iPhone!  I could even go to iTunes and download applications, most of which worked very well with Voice-over.  A whole new world of possibilities was suddenly available to me!  Buyer’s remorse?  No way!

At CSUN, I attended some very helpful and informative classes referencing the iPhone and available apps to help people with disabilities.  One of the first sessions was that on an app called Proloquo2go, which is Latin for, “speak out loud.”  I had heard a bit about this some time ago from one of our blog readers, but this session detailed just what the app does and how it has helped so many people, who have previously been unable to simply communicate with their peers, teachers and family members.  The application uses a combination of pictures and text entry, allowing the user to customize it to fit their needs.  Tears literally filled my eyes when they showed Proloquo2go in action, as it enabled a young girl to interact with her friends and family.  Suddenly, she was able to easily express her thoughts and desires, her silence had been broken.  Prior to this app, there have been assistive technologies that do the same things, but this is the first of its kind that will run on a mainstream consumer device, which is stylish and everyone recognizes it as something “cool.”  What a difference it has already made in the lives of so many!  Check out the Assistive Technology Forum for information about the app itself, as well as any accompanying technologies you may need to get started.

Right after that session, I spent the next hour hearing iPhone and Voice-over in action.  I was writing notes like crazy and it took great effort on my part to resist the urge to pull out my own iPhone and try the things that were being demonstrated.  I was amazed at everything it was able to do, noting that there are very few barriers preventing me from using the available features of this little technology.  Most applications work pretty well, Voice-over can handle them if they are developed correctly, and there are accessibility guidelines the makers of the apps can use as part of their design.  I left that session with a wealth of information and things to try on my own.  Before leaving however, I talked to the representatives that were there from Apple, congratulating them on making such great strides in accessibility.  When large companies like them take the time and effort to include everyone in their product development considerations, it really brings home just how far we have come in accessibility education.  I’m not saying there isn’t still plenty more work to be done, but the awareness is spreading and really making a difference!

There were other sessions involving iPhones and iPods throughout the CSUN Conference, and there will no doubt be even more like them next year as the popularity of these devices continues to grow.  For myself, I am really happy with the product and my decision to give it a try.  I am not looking back, only forward as new and exciting possibilities arise with the iPhone!