Taxing Both Income and Patience: Reviews of TaxACT and TurboTax
Tax software holds the promise for blind taxpayers of independently calculating deductions, deciding whether to itemize, deciding whether to file jointly with your spouse or separately, and much more. This article reviews the accessibility of two commercial tax preparation packages: 2nd Story Software's TaxACT Deluxe and Intuit's Quicken TurboTax Deluxe. Versions for preparing 2001 federal taxes were not finalized at the time of the review, but both promised no real interface changes. The state tax forms were not available at the time of this review, but both packages promise direct importing of information into state forms, and there is no reason to expect accessibility to differ from program to program.
A 300 MHz Pentium laptop computer with 128 MB of RAM running Windows 98 was used. The computer's display was set to 256 colors, 800 x 600 resolution, and the display color scheme was set to Windows Standard. JAWS for Windows (JFW) 3.7 and Window-Eyes 4.1 were used for the review.
To use either tax program, you must know your screen reader, including its mouse-movement commands. Although some screen-reader configuration was helpful, in most cases, the configuration necessary was beyond the average user.
The following features were examined: installation and setup; general application accessibility (using standard Windows keystrokes or, at least, the mouse pointer); the application tools: menus, error messages, and controls; the application window (Is it displaying informational content, program instructions, and so forth?); filling out forms; program help; and tax advice. Some were divided into subcategories to represent dramatic differences in the accessibility of two parts of the same feature. In Product Ratings at the end of this article, an overall rating is given that is not the sum of the ratings for each factor but, rather, a reflection of the program's overall accessibility. Poor access made some features cumbersome and others not worth using at all.
This review is applicable to users of all screen readers, since the access issues were fairly consistent, regardless of the screen reader that was used. Performance varied significantly because of one factor: JFW comes with a script (configuration file) written for an earlier version of TaxACT. As a result, Window-Eyes worked a little better with no configuration files. But by renaming the JFW TaxACT 99 files to TaxACT01, the program was much more accessible using JFW. Some instructions for renaming these files are available upon request. The ratings reflect the accessibility of the tax software, not the availability of an old configuration file for one of the programs. Users of up-to-date versions of JFW should read the comments carefully because the ratings for that program are often lower than the actual performance they can expect.
Installation and Setup
The TaxACT Download was basically accessible. The log-in link was not given a text label, although the file name connected with the link—"s_TaxACT/login"—was understandable. The setup was also basically accessible.
General Application Accessibility
Application Tools: Menus, Error Messages, and Controls
Both screen readers were successful at reading the actual TaxACT menus, but the items on the menu bar were spoken only by Window-Eyes. This was most likely a JFW problem, since Window-Eyes had no trouble. However, access to the menu bar was inconsistent. There seemed no pattern to the times when pressing the Alt key would put the focus on the menu bar and when it would do nothing. This problem occurred with both screen readers. It was usually possible at these times to press Alt+F (or any other menu shortcut) to bring down one menu, press Escape, and have the focus left on the menu bar. But sometimes even this procedure didn't work, and it was necessary to use the mouse to pull down a menu.
Most of the tool bar buttons have equivalents on the menus except for the Forward and Back buttons, which were often useful. These buttons need to be accessed using the mouse pointer.
Error messages in dialog boxes were fully accessible. However, error messages related to the forms themselves were displayed somewhere near the relevant form field. They were spoken consistently only by setting the screen reader to echo everything (Insert-S in JFW, Insert-A in Window-Eyes). This is a mediocre solution.
The Application Window
The seven buttons on the main screen represent seven steps to using the program. These buttons are nonstandard and are thus not spoken. All but the first, Basic Information, have menu equivalents, although it is not always clear which menu item equals which step (for example, the Review Return step is the Alerts option on one of the menus). The menu for the state return is arranged in a nice step-by-step order, making the omission of such an order in the federal return menu seem like an unfortunate oversight. Unfortunately, these unspoken buttons provide immediate instructions on how to start using the program. So, these nicely laid-out steps are available only to the blind user who thinks to look for Program Help in the Help menu.
Filling Out Forms
The basic forms were completed fairly easily. A return for a fictional character with a few complexities in his life was completed in a couple of hours. Since the layouts of the basic forms were fairly consistent, the process went faster after I worked out the initial problems. You can switch back and forth between two methods for completing the forms.
One method is a question-and-answer (Q&A) format in which each screen covers a different subject area (name, address, marital status, and so on). The other involves filling out forms that resemble the appearance of the print forms.
The Q&A process was somewhat usable. The opening screen offers standard edit boxes to fill in first name, middle initial, and last name. Tabbing past these boxes, you encounter the Continue button, which takes you to the next question, the Tax Advisor button, with answers to questions like "my name has changed since last year," and the Supporting Details button, which produces the same table whether or not it is relevant to the current screen.
If you have the JFW script, the field names for the edit boxes are read as you tab through them, and the buttons are spoken after a slight pause. Window-Eyes spoke the field names by reading the current line or routing the mouse pointer to the control and then up from there but did not speak the buttons. Even though the buttons are usually in the same order, it was helpful to get the confirmation because occasionally there was something extra between the form fields and the buttons.
Some of the controls in this Q&A structure involve yes-no or multiple-choice questions, which are nonstandard radio buttons. You simply arrow to the selection you want (the options are spoken using either screen reader) and then tab off them. However, there is no feedback to let you double-check your choice. Similarly, checking a box works by pressing the spacebar, but, again, there is no straightforward way to double-check your answer. The Supporting Details button leads to an inaccessible table. You can tab through these fields and enter data, but they did not function like standard tables, and it was not possible to read the total that supposedly appears at the bottom. The controls to save or print these forms were also inaccessible.
The "standard print tax forms" are even less accessible. If you tab through a blank row, you can often hear the field names read, but once one item has been filled in, field names in the remainder of the row are not heard. One purpose for entering this layout of the form is that sometimes the choices you make that are not reviewable in the Q&A (like your filing status) show up in the form with an x before the desired choice, giving you the missing feedback. However, making the choices directly in this layout of the form can be tedious.
The Help function leaves something to be desired. Pressing F1 brings up the first of a set of informative screens that need to be read using the mouse pointer. There is no keystroke navigation or context-sensitive help.
The Tax Advice (F2) presents a table of contents composed of items linked to the related information, making it clear where to "click" to access the desired information. The search feature allows you to search either Program Help or the Tax Guide. The list of tax-related topics that can be searched is quite detailed.
Quicken TurboTax Deluxe Installation and Setup
The installation process was a pleasure. The initial dialog box asks if you want to install TurboTax; it does not launch the installation process automatically. This question makes it possible for you to choose what to do.
General Application Accessibility
Accessibility of the Application Tools: Menus, Error Messages, and Controls
The menu bar and menus read well with both screen readers. Error messages in dialog boxes were fully accessible. However, error messages related to the forms themselves were displayed somewhere near the relevant form field. They were spoken consistently only by setting the screen reader to echo everything. Since this setting causes other information to echo in a manner that makes it unclear where you are, this is only a mediocre solution at best.
The Application Window
The foregoing description of the accessible elements of this program is striking in comparison to the fact that none of the text in the main body of the application reads at all, except for the title and the bar of Help questions on the side. These questions give clues to what happens if you activate the Continue or Go Back buttons that are read by screen readers.
Filling Out Forms
The Q&A-style series of forms, referred to as the Interview, is hard to use because the main body of information is unreadable by screen readers. It is possible to guess what is being asked, sometimes, because the buttons are labeled Start New Return or Download Now and the Help on the side is related to what is being asked. Occasionally, there is an accessible screen, such as the one for filing status.
The "forms" are much more accessible than the Interview. The field names are mainly readable text, but there is no consistency to positioning—sometimes on the line with the form field, sometimes above it. In some cases, it was almost impossible to find the right information.
Help leaves something to be desired. However, it has some interesting and useful features. The Help utility comes up in its own window. While pressing F1 rings up Tax Advice, it is possible from there to select Program Help from the file menu. Program Help can also be selected directly from the applications Help menu. Although the screens must be navigated using the mouse pointer, the focus is at the top of the useful Help window, making it easy to route the mouse pointer to the correct starting place. The first screen of Program Help is basically a Contents screen, so any option can be "clicked" on to access the desired information.
The Help utility also includes a bookmark menu. Selecting Add Bookmark adds the page you are on to that menu for easy retrieval. You can find the Search function from the Edit menu of the Help utility as well as separately from the main application Help menu. In general, the program Help screens give instructions that work for the keyboard user. There is a lot more reference to selecting from menus than clicking on buttons.
When F1 is pressed during completion of tax forms, the information displayed in the Help utility begins with the section most relevant to the field being completed. There are also several different approaches to getting tax assistance from the same utility, some of which are more accessible than others.
The program CD contains 35 searchable publications. Unfortunately, the instructions for using these publications refer to a Contents button that could not be located during this review. The publications can be searched by keyword, however. The database does not include tables, sample fill-in forms, or appendixes that are in the hard-copy publications. For the blind tax filer, this is possibly a critical omission.
Other resources included with this program are the Money Magazine Income Tax Handbook, which also relies on the elusive Contents button, a tax Q&A prepared by Intuit in consultation with professional tax preparers that is difficult to navigate in general, and a video library that is somewhat usable. What you can't access is the information about who is giving you the clips of information. Also, all the little videos refer to an inaccessible More Info Button.
The Bottom Line
TaxACT is the clear choice. There were enough major access problems with TurboTax to render it basically useless. TaxACT, although it has flaws, is a program that could be used to calculate a tax return. Clearly TaxACT has even more potential if some changes were made, such as using standard Windows and controls.
A major drawback is that you cannot import information from other financial packages, such as Quicken or QuickBooks, into TaxACT, although the manufacturer hopes to add this capacity in the future. TurboTax seems to offer a wealth of information that could help someone with complex tax issues in an enjoyable and entertaining manner. If that information were usable, it might be worth the cost of the program.
All in all, the results of this review were disappointing, and the more accessible program still leaves much to be desired. It is hoped that in the future, for the blind taxpayer, filing tax returns won't be this cumbersome and the choices won't be so limited.
Manufacturer: 2nd Story Software phone: 800-573-4287 or 319-373-3600 web site: <www.TaxACT.com>. Price: $19.95 Includes state forms and one free electronic filing.
Quicken TurboTax Deluxe
Manufacturer: Intuit phone: 800-440-3279 or 650-944-6000 web site: <www.intuit.com>. Price: $39.95.
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