The Good Guys at the IRS: A Look at IRS Accessibility
Several years ago, I was somewhat traumatized by the news that I was being audited by the Internal Revenue Service. The mistake was a simple one, made by my accountant rather than by me, but it cost me thousands of dollars and an inordinate degree of anxiety. At the time, I felt that the IRS was an ogre of an entity and, like a parent of sorts, would always have the last word. Though I tried to unravel the problem, I ultimately paid my penalty and tried to slink back into the shadows. Since then, I've paid closer attention to my tax preparation, and have spent some time educating myself about the information resources the IRS makes available to citizens. Along the way, I've had the privilege to meet a couple "good guys" at the IRS. I share their stories here, along with some tips and a list of important tax information resources that will hopefully help your 2010 filing go smoothly.
Tips and Reminders for 2010
Here are a few things to keep in mind this year when you prepare your taxes.
Earned Income Tax Credit
The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) was responsible for paying out nearly $60 billion in 2010 to some 26 million Americans, with an average payment of $2,000. There are about 20 criteria determining qualification, but generally, if your income is in the low to moderate range, you are a U.S. citizen, have a Social Security number, and are between the ages of 25 and 65, you probably qualify. A couple filing jointly, for instance, earning less than $49,000, with three qualifying children, can receive up to $5,600. (A qualifying child is a child under age 24 who is a full-time student or a child of any age who is permanently disabled). Note that disability benefits such as SSI, SSDI, or Veterans' benefits do not count as income for this credit. To qualify, you must have other earned income. To find out more, visit the IRS website and search for EITC.
Free Tax Preparation
The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) has 90,000 certified volunteers preparing tax returns free of charge for people with disabilities all over the country. Typically, returns are filed electronically which means a quicker refund and no paper for you to handle. Centers are open January through April 15 or, in some places, April 18. Hours vary. Most are open Monday through Friday during the day, but evenings and Saturdays are also offered. Some require appointments, but many have no appointment requirements. To find the center nearest you, type the name of your state plus the word VITA (e.g., "New York VITA" or "Michigan VITA" without the quotes) in the search box on the IRS homepage.
You can also file your own return electronically free of charge by taking advantage of the Free File program. This is made possible by a group of tax preparation software companies (TurboTax and others) who have formed an alliance in order to provide free filing to those who meet income qualifications.
Investing Your Refund
When you file electronically and are due a tax refund, you can have that refund deposited electronically as well. You can even have your refund divided, according to your instructions, into as many as three parts. If, for instance, your refund is $5,000, you could direct that $2,000 be deposited into your IRA, $1,000 be used to purchase two $500 savings bonds from the IRS, and the remaining $2,000 be deposited directly into your personal checking account to pay bills or buy yourself a present for being such a savvy taxpayer! There is no cost for dividing your refund in this manner.
Two Profiles of IRS Employees
I've had the opportunity to talk to two IRS employees with disabilities, both with very interesting stories to tell.
Working for the Good Guys: Richard Keeling
Last summer I attended a workshop at the National Industries for the Blind. The workshop presenter was Richard Keeling, a senior tax analyst with Education and Outreach at IRS, a department he likes to refer to as "the good guys" at the IRS. At the IRS, he says, "we apply tax law and collect taxes, but we also have programs to help people save money." His department works with over twenty partnering organizations—including the National Industries for the Blind, American Council of the Blind, and United Way—to assist people in preparing tax returns, understanding qualifications for tax credits, and even investing the money received in tax refunds.
Keeling's first experience with the IRS was to land a job in 1982 under Schedule A hiring. Keeling is quadriplegic due to a diving accident at age 16, and Schedule A offers noncompetitive, essentially guaranteed interviews to people with disabilities. His example is one of many that illustrates that people with disabilities are not "stuck" in lower level jobs. In 1982, he was hired at a GS4 level, and today, as a senior tax analyst, he is ranked as a GS14, nearly at the top of the IRS food chain. He says 3.5 percent of his department's workforce has disabilities, and they actively recruit in employees with disabilities. In our conversation, he rapidly named various coworkers who are blind, visually impaired, deaf, hearing impaired, or have polio or spinal cord injuries.
People with disabilities can be found in all IRS service centers around the country. Accommodations are typically made, although some blind employees report that on-the-job accommodations do vary somewhat from one supervisor to another.
Serving His Country: Brian McCann
When Brian McCann was in high school, he wanted to join the military. Even as a little kid, he fantasized about being in the U.S. Army or Navy. His actual enlistment encounter, as it turned out, was with the U.S. Marines. Although his visual acuity at the time was measured at 20/30, the Marines quickly learned of his diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa—a diagnosis shared by most members in his family—and his offer to serve was rejected. He found employment, and was rapidly promoted to management roles in every job—from K-Mart to the state of Virginia—but after a few years, the retinitis pigmentosa kicked into gear and his vision began diminishing rapidly. The Department for the Blind and Visually Impaired in his home state of Virginia sent him to a seven-month training program at Lions World in Arkansas, where he ultimately graduated from the IRS training program with the highest score, 99.8, that program had awarded. As promised, he was hired under Schedule A (noncompetitive hiring for people with disabilities) and began his career in tax collection at the IRS Service Center on Long Island, New York.
He was one of at least twenty people with a visible disability at his particular service center, six or seven of whom were blind or visually impaired, and he loved his job. The IRS had accommodated him with a laptop equipped with ZoomText, and JAWS screen-reading software and an Amigo portable electronic magnifier. His role was to investigate errors in the tax returns of small businesses and self-employed people. The work pulled together his knowledge of tax law, his computer skills, and his enthusiasm for research. After a fairly short time, he was selected as one of five people nationwide to travel to Washington, D.C. for additional training to examine the returns of government entities. He was even selected as an example for recruitment and says you can still see the photo of him with his guide dog among the rotating images presented on the IRS recruitment page.
In April 2009, McCann was on his way to work in a taxi that collided head-on with another vehicle. Both drivers were killed. McCann climbed out of the taxi with his guide dog, but his back injuries led to ongoing problems. Again, the IRS accommodated his new disability—with leave time and an ergonomic chair—but he ultimately decided to resign. Today, almost two years later and considerably stronger, McCann's vision is measured at 20/400 and, back on the job hunt, he says he sometimes regrets his decision to leave the IRS. "I loved my job," he says, "and since I couldn't serve in the military, it provided me with the sense of satisfaction that I was doing something to serve my country."
Finding IRS Information
Many people worry about making a mistake on their tax return, but helpful information you need to accurately file your taxes is available and accessible. The resources listed below are good places to begin your research. Get started educating yourself now and you won't have to worry when April 15 comes around.
Taxpayer Advocate Service
When I had my problem several years ago, I didn't know about the Taxpayer Advocate Service, a free service provided by the IRS to taxpayers needing help solving tax problems or inequities. To find the tax advocate in your state, go to the IRS's Taxpayer Advocate Service website or call (877) 777-4778.
Alternate Media Center
I did request information in braille and subsequently received a large box of braille publications in the mail. The IRS operates an Alternate Media Center, through which documents can be obtained in braille or audio formats. The website is also accessible to screen readers and refreshable braille displays, and publications can be downloaded. Publications can also be ordered by calling (800) 829-3676.
IRS Information Line
To check the status of your refund or listen to information on 17 categories of tax topics on the telephone, call (800) 829-4477. It warrants noting that, although there is a considerable amount of detailed and useful information on this toll-free line, there are no topics included that specifically relate to disability.
To get answers to general tax questions from a live representative, call (800) 829-1040.
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