Plexus, Adobe help IRS comply with 508 regs

Blind can access 50 most-used tax forms online



When Americans next year begin the ritual of completing annual tax forms, the nation's
blind and visually impaired citizens will be able to fill out 50 of the most-used forms
online for the first time.
This development was driven by a
16-month-old federal regulation, Section 508, that requires federal IT systems and Web
sites to be accessible to people with disabilities. It was made possible by a partnership
of the Internal Revenue Service with two companies: Adobe Systems Inc. of San Jose,
Calif., publisher of the portable document format software used to create documents, such
as IRS tax forms; and Plexus Scientific Corp. of Alexandria, Va., a provider of electronic
publishing solutions to the IRS.
Curtis Chong, director of
technology for the National Federation of the Blind, a consumer organization in Baltimore,
said the IRS effort is an intriguing project that holds great promise for making digital
forms more accessible. Ten million Americans are blind or visually impaired, according to
the American Foundation for the Blind, an advocacy organization in New York.
<>
SIZE="2">Previously, visually impaired taxpayers could extract the text from a PDF form
into a simple notebook program, where a screen reader for the blind could read it aloud.
But they had to rely on a business or friend to input the information online, said Michael
Moore, chief of the IRS Alternative Media Center, a unit created to solve IT problems. "We knew we needed to find a solution that provided the same access to
the functionality of a form to a blind person as we provided to a sighted person,"
Moore said.
Moore and his team worked with Plexus for more than a
year to create a road map, or structure tree, using Adobe's Acrobat 5.0 software as the
technology platform.
The road map allows visually impaired users
to navigate the complex documents in the same order sighted users navigate them, and also
halts screen readers so users have time to fill out the forms as they go along, said Cyril
St. Martin, general manager of the IT Division at Plexus.
Human
judgment is critical in the creation process, Chong said. Developers must provide exact
prompts so users know precisely what to type in each field, he said.
<>
SIZE="2">"The art of labeling the form is crucial to make this work," Chong
said. "Without the art, someone could mark the form up, and users wouldn't know what
to do." Plexus worked under an $11 million, indefinite
delivery, indefinite quantity contract for electronic publishing services. Initially, the
IRS last fall asked the company to create five accessible PDF forms and a guide to
preparing those forms. Plexus delivered the forms to the IRS after about three months, and
the IRS asked for more.
Together, the IRS, Adobe and Plexus have
contributed about $1 million to the initiative to create 50 forms, St. Martin said.
Creating the accessible forms wasn't easy, however. For example, the
Acrobat 5.0 tool set required Plexus staff to insert the necessary intelligence into the
forms manually, one step at a time.
"The IRS and Plexus came
to us and said it is really too hard," said Christy Hubbard, a government product
marketing manager for Adobe. Adobe responded by joining the Plexus-IRS effort, although
Moore said it is not under contract with the IRS for the task.
The
solution was presented to federal agency managers in charge of Section 508 compliance at a
conference last month in Washington. Moore said he hopes other agencies will use the IRS
solution to develop their own accessible forms and also work with the IRS to improve the
creation process.
Also at the conference, Adobe rolled out its PDF
Forms Access Agent, a product developed out of the IRS-Plexus-Adobe collaboration. Forms
Access allows users to create PDF documents eight times faster than previously possible,
Adobe officials said.
In addition to speeding the creation
process, the new tool will allow the IRS to update its forms annually without recreating
them, Moore said.
Plexus officials want to contract with other
agencies for forms creation or staff training in the procedure and are interested in
partnering with systems integrators to get the solution adopted governmentwide, St. Martin
said.
"We hope that by the end of next year, 10 other
agencies have put up their top 50 forms," he said.
Staff
Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at gemery@postnewsweektech.com.
<>
SIZE="4">Project: Online Tax Forms for the Blind Agency: Internal
Revenue Service
Partners* IRS Alternative
Media Center, Washington, research and development and usability testing
<>
SIZE="2">* Adobe Systems Inc., San Jose, Calif., software provider*
Plexus Scientific Corp., Alexandria, Va., IT consulting and structured content developer

GoalTo create online IRS tax forms in Adobe's
portable document format that can be filled out online by blind and visually impaired
taxpayers.
ObstacleScreen readers for the
blind must be able to navigate the forms online in the same way sighted users navigate,
and the screen reader must pause so users have time to fill out the forms.
<>
SIZE="2"> SolutionPlexus created a
structure tree that provides the necessary navigation and fill-in capabilities, working
with Adobe's Acrobat 5.0 software, usability experts at the IRS Alternative Media Center
and Adobe product managers.
PayoffBy tax
season next year, the blind will be able to use online 50 of the most-used tax forms.

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