It can be intimidating to receive correspondence from the IRS—but what if you couldn’t understand any of it?
That’s what visually impaired taxpayers alleged was happening in a lawsuit filed against the US Treasury in 2019. In their complaint, three taxpayers and the National Federation of the Blind Inc. charged that the IRS was sending notices and letters in a format that was not readily accessible to most blind people.
Most blind people, they noted, typically have an alternative primary reading method such as Braille, screen-access software, large print, or audio recording that allows them to access and respond to communications independently and privately. But, at the time of the suit, the IRS did not offer these or other accessible formats. And, the plaintiffs claimed, even in instances where the IRS knew taxpayers were visually impaired, there were no effective means to provide information to blind people in formats that were accessible to them.
Practically, this meant blind taxpayers wouldn’t immediately know when they’ve received a notice from IRS. Any delay in having someone read their mail to them meant they could miss deadlines to respond to time-sensitive notices or pay outstanding tax bills. It also meant they were forced to divulge private information to sighted third parties. According to the lawsuit, the result was increased hardship to taxpayers, including additional interest and penalties.
In 2020, the parties reached a settlement. This year, as a result of that settlement, the IRS rolled out Form 9000, allowing taxpayers to choose to receive tax notices in Braille, large print, audio, or electronic formats. This option isn’t restricted to ordinary publications and includes personal correspondence about additional taxes or penalties owed. Alternative notices are available in English and in Spanish.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 12 million people who are 40 or older in the US have vision impairment.
Visually impaired taxpayers aren’t the only taxpayers who may struggle when trying to interact with the IRS, however. Approximately two to four of every 1,000 people in the US are “functionally deaf.” If you include those with a severe hearing impairment, the number increases to nine to 22 out of every 1,000 people.
What’s Different Today
Today, the IRS says all taxpayers should receive tax information in a format accessible to them. The IRS Alternative Media Center provides resources and accessibility services to taxpayers with disabilities. Content is available in various formats for use with assistive technology, such as screen-reading software, refreshable Braille displays, and voice recognition software.
Taxpayers who need an alternative tax product can download it from the Accessible Forms and Publications page on IRS.gov and can request Braille or large print copies by calling the IRS at 1-800-829-3676. Mail and fax options are also available. These products include tax forms and schedules, instructions, and publications that can be downloaded or viewed online as Section 508 compliant PDF, HTML, eBraille, text, and large print.
The IRS also has a dedicated Accessibility Helpline at 1-833-690-0598. However, that helpline does not offer information about taxpayer accounts.
According to the IRS, since launching Form 9000 in January 2022, the agency has processed more than 2,300 requests for alternative media notices. Most of those requests were for large print format (1,720), while others included Braille (64), Braille Ready (9), audio (39), and plain text (508).
“Taxpayers seem to be pleased to have correspondence going out systemically in their preferred formats including other languages,” an IRS spokesperson said.
Basic tax information is available in 21 languages. However, audio offerings are limited to Spanish and English—the IRS expects that to change.
The IRS says it will continue to increase what’s available in alternative media formats as the need is identified. When it comes to figuring that out, the IRS says that in addition to transcribing the most used tax products—such as Form 1040—into alternative media formats, they have a process that allows a taxpayer to request a specific tax product if it’s not already available. Once the product is transcribed, the agency says it will continue to include it in its offerings.
And while some of the actions the agency are taking are forward-thinking, others are simply trying to right old wrongs. According to the National Federation of the Blind, after the settlement was executed, the IRS granted more than 8,000 requests by blind taxpayers to abate interest or penalties accrued because of the agency’s previous failure to provide notices in accessible formats.
NFB’s Chris Danielsen says that improvements due to the settlement are noticeable. For example, he has received a letter in Braille, filled out the form online, and noted that “it was completely accessible.”
And while the settlement didn’t specifically address the needs of taxpayers who are deaf or hard of hearing, the agency is making progress there, too. Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association for the Deaf, says that the IRS is to be commended for creating approximately 80 videos with content in American Sign Language, made available on YouTube.
In fact, he says, the IRS is likely the federal agency with the most ASL content among all agencies in the US government. Additionally, he notes that the agency seems to primarily use native ASL signers, which is helpful when conveying complex information.
“We hope that the IRS continues to create more videos of IRS information translated into ASL,” Rosenblum said.
Other improvements could include closed captions to allow viewers to customize the captions as needed and providing a transcript with the video for deafblind individuals—the transcript is offered as an option in the directory, but the National Association of the Deaf wants to see it included in the YouTube video embeds themselves.
The biggest challenge moving forward? Rosenblum says that these media products are not well known or broadly marketed within the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. That’s a concern I’ve heard echoed across communities, including those who are visually impaired.
NAD also would like to see the IRS provide an ASL-based telecommunication service to the deaf and hard of hearing community to answer any questions they might have—like the numbers for the general public. I was surprised by this request because there already is an IRS TTY line, but Rosenblum says that technology serves a very small part of the deaf and hard-of-hearing population. Newer technology like a videophone line or internet-based video platform would allow for direct ASL communications between deaf and hard of hearing signing individuals and ASL fluent agents.
Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference
Some of these asks seem small but can make a significant impact. I know how difficult it can be to manage when alternatives are unavailable. I’ve worked with clients with visual and hearing impairments and know how frustrating it can be when they can’t easily access or address issues they are otherwise capable of handling.
It also hits close to home. My grandparents both struggled with their eyesight—my grandmother lost most of her vision to diabetes, while my grandfather lost an eye years before in a farming accident. When my grandmother got cancer, her medications weren’t labeled in a format my grandparents could read. Each week, my mom sorted her pills and wrote out the instructions in super large print so my grandfather could ensure he doled out the right ones. That showed me early on how important it is to have information available in a format that’s easy to understand.
I also realized how relatively small changes could make a big difference. As my grandmother grew weaker, my grandfather had the house repainted. He chose the one color she still could make out: neon green. Even the neighbors understood how that made her life better.
Our tax laws are not simple at the best of times. But we shouldn’t make it harder—all taxpayers deserve effective and equal access to IRS forms and communications. Taking steps that can make the lives of taxpayers better—and compliance easier—is a win for all of us.
This is a weekly column from Kelly Phillips Erb, the Taxgirl. Erb offers commentary on the latest in tax news, tax law, and tax policy. Look for Erb’s column every week from Bloomberg Tax and follow her on Twitter at @taxgirl.
To contact the reporter on this story: