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Accessible Online Tax Preparation Success Story

February 9, 2005 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Now that my employer provides W2 documents online, I decided to try preparing my taxes independently this year. Though I managed to cut my teeth a couple of times on some minor accessibility glitches and an unexpected IRS E-Filing issue, I ultimately succeeded. That’s right! My taxes are done and no intervention on the part of a sighted person was required! Keep reading to learn how you may be able to complete your own tax return in the convenience and privacy of your own home.

It is absolutely critical to be prepared before starting the tax preparation process. Specifically, you must have all tax documents (1099, W2, etc.) at your disposal. In order to prepare your tax return completely on your own, all documents must be available in an accessible electronic format. You may scan these documents, but check the numbers very closely to insure they make sense for your financial situation as the scanning and OCR process can sometimes mangle this information. Since most of this material is heavily formatted into rows and columns, it is critical to deactivate your OCR program’s column identification or decolumnization functionality before processing. In my case, it took me an hour just to use my assistive technology to convert my W2 into a usable format. My employer’s HR department provides the tax documents in PDF. I downloaded the PDF file to my computer’s hard drive and loaded it into Adobe Reader 7. The amount of accessibility provided by JAWS in conjunction with Adobe Reader 7 was insufficient. I was unable to confidently associate the line numbers in the W2 with the values they represented. Persisting, I sent the PDF document through K1000’s virtual printer with the software configured not to identify columns. This provided the information in such a way that I was able to successfully identify line numbers and their correct values. I checked the raw numbers against those in the actual PDF. Everything was a match, so I was confident enough to save the W2 in K1000 and proceed.

I’m a big fan of H&R Block. With the exception of one year, I have personally visited their offices once every tax season since filing my 1995 return. My results have been satisfying every time. Contemplating online tax preparation this year, I decided to stick with a winner by visiting their Free Online Tax Program web site, which is provided in partnership with IRS. Federal tax returns are free and state returns may be prepared through this service at a nominal fee. I chose to complete both Federal and state returns online.

After signing up for an account, the tax preparation process is simply a matter of answering questions and providing relevant information from your W2 in an online “interview” format. There were a couple of caveats with respect to web site accessibility that were not insurmountable. First, I had some trouble choosing between “standard”, “signature” and “premium” tax preparation service. I solved this by considering the order in which the services were presented in the text and clicking the first “get started” link for “standard” service. Second, none of the online help information was accessible. I’m not sure what is supposed to happen when you click “more info” or other help related links, but JAWS was completely blind to any information that may have been presented on the screen. Fortunately, since my tax situation was simple, this was not a show stopper.

After successfully completing the interview processes for filing a Federal and a State tax return, it was time to arrange for my Federal tax refund, pay my state taxes and E-File everything. I was able to tell IRS that I want to receive my tax refund via direct deposit, definitely an accessibility improvement over receiving a paper check in the mail. It was also possible for me to supply electronic payment information to take care of my state tax bill. I managed to hit a snag on the E-Filing process. In order to electronically “sign” your tax return, you must be able to provide your adjusted gross income (AGI) from the previous year’s return. I never knew about this requirement. Since H&R Block has been handling my taxes, I never needed this information. In the past, the tax preparer simply pulled up information from the previous year and included this figure automatically. Since I am not able to read my printed 2003 tax return, I contacted my local H&R Block office to see what could be done to resolve my E-Filing signature accessibility challenge. I expected that it would be necessary for me to physically pay a visit to the office in order to obtain the needed information from one of their tax preparers. I would have had no problem doing this for security reasons. Happily, I was wrong. After being connected with the manager of the office, she asked me a number of detailed security questions for purposes of verifying my real identity, then provided me with the needed adjusted gross income from last year’s return. I thanked her profusely for the excellent service and was on my merry way!

You’re probably asking yourself: can I do this too? Can I independently file a tax return solely at my own convenience in the privacy of my own home without need of sighted assistance? Unfortunately, in many cases, the answer is probably still “no”. My tax situation remains quite simple and my employer provides electronic copies of W2 documents which can be made accessible with some effort. Unfortunately, most tax documents still come in print and scanning them is not usually a good idea due to concerns about the accuracy of the numbers. It took significant time and effort diligently configuring and using both the Adobe Reader 7.0 and K1000 version 9.02 to accomplish this task. If you are fortunate enough to have electronic access to all necessary tax documents and you are comfortable and confident with your access technology then, by all means, go for it! Please do let us all know how the accessible tax preparation process worked for you.

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One opinion on “Accessible Online Tax Preparation Success Story

  1. I have been preparing my own tax return for some years now. My approach is somewhat different from yours, but I thought I’d share it with you just to give another data point.

    I used to use Turbotax, but some years ago the folks at Intuit found a way to display their question-and-answer interview in a way that was totally invisible to a screen reader. I think at that time I tried 3 different screen readers and came up empty. I tried Kipplinger’s Tax Cut as well, and again I had trouble getting the screen to read. Tax preparation is such a text-based activity that it has always amazed me how much effort the developers of tax software seem to put into building roadblocks to access to that text using a screen reader. At any rate, I moved to the “cheap choice” in tax software, TaxAct, a few years ago, and I am ever-so-grateful that they seem not to have dreamed up any new roadblocks to accessibility over the years. There are oddities about the software, but the JAWS scripts for TaxAct do a pretty good job at programming around them. I don’t have any of my tax documents available in electronic form, unfortunately, but I am one of those dinosaurs who still has an Optacon and can study the printed documents. It’s slow, but doing my own taxes in this intimate way, reading my own forms and puzzling over what they tell me, has really helped me stay aware of what I’m doing from year to year. I eagerly await the day that I can get hold of electronic forms that (can it be possible?) might just import right into my tax software. In the meantime, at least I do manage to do my taxes, and there’s a wonderful satisfaction when I at last hit that e-file button <grin>.


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