Fewer than 1 in 10 callers with speech and hearing impairments get through on IRS help line

By Stephen Ohlemacher, AP
Thursday, September 30, 2010

Few hearing-impaired callers reach IRS help line

WASHINGTON — Fewer than one in 10 callers managed to get help during tax season when they called an Internal Revenue Service help line for people with speech or hearing impairments, a government investigator said Thursday.

Overall phone service by the IRS improved during the 2010 tax season, said a report by J. Russell George, Treasury inspector general for tax administration. But phone service for speech- or hearing-impaired callers declined.

More than 350,000 people called the IRS help line for people with speech or hearing impairments during tax season. The overwhelming majority hung up almost immediately — the IRS says many probably called the line for people with hearing or speech impairments by mistake.

Some 3,844 stayed on the line to wait for assistance. Of those, 339 — or 8.8 percent — actually reached a real person, the report said.

That’s down from last year, when 14.4 percent were served.

“Our report found that far too few hearing- and speech-impaired taxpayers successfully reached an IRS assistor,” George said. “The IRS must do a better job of ensuring that all Americans have equal access to its services.”

The IRS said it offers many services for taxpayers with speech or hearing impairments, including a website that provides pages of information addressing many taxpayer issues. Online services include an American Sign Language channel on YouTube.

The agency’s toll-free help line for people with speech or hearing impairments requires callers to have a telecommunications device with a keyboard that allows them to type their conversations and read the reply on a display screen.

In a written response to George’s report, the IRS said the number of callers not getting help is inflated because many people mistakenly call the help line and hang up once they realize it is for people with hearing or speech impairments. Nevertheless, the agency said it plans to improve its services for 2011.

The IRS has been working for years to provide more alternatives for all taxpayers seeking help, with regular updates on the IRS website as new tax issues arise. Still, millions of taxpayers call the IRS each year, looking for help or information about their taxes.

This year, the agency’s toll-free help line received a total of 72 million calls during tax season, down from nearly 76 million in 2009.

A little more than 75 percent of the callers got help this year, the report said. That’s up from 64 percent in 2009.

Wait times, however, increased, from a little less than 9 minutes last year to a little less than 10 minutes this year.

will not be displayed