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What losing the headphone jack would mean for accessibility

We don't yet know with certainty that Apple is removing the headphone jack from the next iPhones. Assuming rumors are true, it still remains to be seen why the company would decide to do so, and more importantly, how they intend to replace it.

For me, any significant change to the iPhone's hardware has brought with it significant ramifications in terms of accessibility. The advent of the Retina Display in 2010 made seeing the screen easier than ever before given my low vision, while Touch ID's (and later, the Touch ID API) arrival in 2013 lessened the load required of my eyes and fingers to unlock my phone and enter passwords.

So it goes with the headphone jack. Whatever Apple does to replace the existing 3.5mm jack this year is bound to have some impact on accessibility.

Wrangling the Wire

Like many people, I use the 3.5mm jack on a daily basis. I'm constantly using my EarPods to listen to a podcast in Overcast or an album in Apple Music. As such, I'm always inserting and removing the headphones from the jack.

Consider plugging in headphones. There are three factors at work here: holding the phone, seeing where the jack is, and actually plugging in the cord. Together, they make up the experience of plugging in your headphones. They also present challenges, however subtle, in accessibility.

Others may have different needs and tolerances, but in my case, plugging in my EarPods is mainly a test of my vision and fine-motor skills. I have no problem holding the phone, but where it gets tricky is in visually finding the jack and physically guiding the plug into it. Believe it or not, it actually takes a considerable amount of effort and concentration for me to plug in headphones. Because of my low vision and impaired motor skills caused by my cerebral palsy, my hand-eye coordination isn't optimal. In this case, I have to work hard to make sure I know where the jack is while simultaneously pushing it in so that it clicks into place.

Removing the jack is easier, insofar that I've trained myself to do so by feel. I know where the headphone jack is, so all I need to do is find it and pull. Between the two, I liken unplugging my EarPods to going downhill. It's always easier to come down than it is to go up (plugging them in).

Untangling my EarPods is an issue as well. As before, it's a test of my vision and fine-motor abilities. Most of the time I'm successful, but that may not be the case for everyone. That said, although accessibility plays a role, the bigger problem is the sheer nuisance of untangling the cord. It's a pain and unsightly—I dislike it as much as anyone else.

Hit the Road, Jack

Given the challenges I described in the previous section, I wouldn't mind Apple removing the headphone jack.

There's been speculation that Apple may move to Lightning-based headphones, and that very well could be the plan, but it wouldn't be any more accessible. I would still need to contend with finding the Lightning port and untangling wires. Perhaps Lightning headphones are advantageous in that they sound better, but in an accessibility context, they're functionally the same.

Thus, a separate "AirPods" product would be very appealing to me. By nature of being wireless, these headphones would solve the visual and motor issues I have with my EarPods. I've long been intrigued by Beats headphones, but have never used them extensively. If nothing else, I'd pay a premium for wireless headphones simply for the novelty of brand cachet (if Beats is involved, which makes sense) and a new experience.

All of this is to say that I think I'm ready to leave the wired world of headphones behind.

Bottom Line

Like with viewing non-Retina screens and entering passwords, using headphones is one of those things that doesn't seem to have accessibility challenges. In actuality, however, it really does. In the aggregate, for someone with disabilities, a seemingly small thing like plugging in your EarPods goes a long way in shaping the experience. I know it does for me.

We'll find out soon enough what Apple has done to the new iPhones. And if the headphone jack is indeed gone, then I'll be ready to adopt whatever wireless alternative is best.

Steven is a freelance tech writer who specializes in iOS Accessibility. He also writes at Steven's Blog and co-hosts the @accessibleshow podcast. Lover of sports.

38 Comments
  • Great points that I would like to add to. Removing the headphone jack has additional significant impacts I have not seen discussed. First, if you are using wired lightning earpods/headpones, you cannot also be charging your phone unless Apple releases a lightning splitter cable. A more significant issue is the impact of using battery packs that do not replicate the lightning jack. How will one use wired earpods/headphones unless someone comes our with USB D/A adapters.
  • Dear iMore, when writing articles about possible advantages of Apple developing truly wireless 'airpods' or possible advantages with lightning headphones can you PLEASE for the sake of being totally honest with your readers be consistent in pointing out that the headphone jack doesn't HAVE to be removed to enjoy any of those alternatives or possible increased feature sets? Yes if Apple released lightning headphones they could make some (albeit relatively small and trivial) sound quality improvements or they could add health/biometric sensors however the lightning connector AND the 3.5 headphone jack already coexist in the same device as it stands today, so Apple doesn't HAVE to remove the headphone jack to release new lightning headphones. Likewise, yes 'airpods' or whatever they may be called if they indeed are released would also be a nice alternative, but truly wireless connectivity for sound devices and the headphone jack already coexists in the same device as it stands today, so again Apple doesn't HAVE to remove the headphone jack to release new wireless headphones. These articles are all written in the tone of 'if Apple removed the headphone jack, they could _______' which is misleading for readers because Apple could ________ without removing the headphone jack.
    IF the blogosphere is to be believed and Apple DOES remove the headphone jack and IF the blogosphere is correct and their narrative which follows has anything to do with advantages of wireless or lighting for sound like is currently circulating on the blogs then it would be pretty deceptive for reasons outlined above. I for one am hoping for another narrative entirely that actually makes sense i.e. the jack needs to removed to make space for ______X. If that's not the case however then it would be pretty clear that Apple wouldn't be removing the headphone jack to provide the user with a better audio experience, since they can provide all those same experiences without removing a thing. They'd be doing it as a purely financial reason while trying to mislead users to believe otherwise - this would be pretty darn user hostile. To the original author - if wired headphones are challenging for your use cases from an accessibility standpoint then you don't have to wait for Apple to do anything. Wireless bluetooth headsets are available today. If the wires that interconnect the left and right ear buds presents a separate set of accessibility issues, there are several truly wireless products on the market now which are also options - Samsung just release a pair recently along with several other vendors.
  • Well put and agreed....I totally agree!!!
  • This article was not misrepresented. Steven Aquino also does not work for iMore or Mobile Nations. What he does offer is an inside perspective on accessibility. Which this article is about. You're focusing on one aspect of thought about how accessibility could be made easier. This was part of the thought of how moving from a 3mm jack to the lightning port would not make accessibility any easier. He also states that there are other options for wireless currently, such as Beats wireless headphones. Nowhere is it said that for Apple to make their own wireless earphones the headphone jack had to be removed. I would recommend the article in full before making out of context replies. Or just refrain from out of context replies. Sent from the iMore App
  • My only concern with what you're talking about is the assumption that Apple, the current maker of Beats headphones, would actually manufacture a headphone anyone who cares about music other than hip hop would want to use.
  • i'm not buying a phone anytime soon and i've never needed the newest phone. But no wired jack has pretty much been my deal breaker. I've considered Android and for my next phone it's very very much an option.
  • My concern about moving full time to wireless earphones is the lag. While I like the idea, as a VoiceOver user the lag when using wireless headphones is intolerable. I have a set of Jabra Move headphones, which are great for listening to music etc., but for general phone navigation, browsing or especially typing, I still need to be wired up. Sent from the iMore App
  • I don't even remember when was the last time I used a wired headphones, maybe in 2009… Sent from the iMore App
  • Someone should inform the author that the iPhone already supports wireless headphones.
  • Someone should inform the commenter to actually read the article. He does state that there are options for Bluetooth headphones currently. Sent from the iMore App
  • I suggest you read the article again before commenting. Or better yet search for the word Bluetooth and wonder why that word is not in the article (even though you claim otherwise).
  • "I've long been intrigued by Beats headphones, but have never used them extensively. If nothing else, I'd pay a premium for wireless headphones..." Bluetooth is inferred. Sent from the iMore App
  • The fact that there are wireless headphones available that will work NOW negates the authors entire tirade about his difficulties using the 3.5mm jack. Sent from the iMore App
  • I would assume plugging in the micro USB or lightning charger for wireless headphones would prove much more difficult than a 1/8" TRRS into a phone. Perhaps this could be solved if Apple made the headphones charge via induction with a magnetic alignment mechanism, ala Apple Watch charger. I agree as others stated: Apple does not have to remove the 1/8" port to add the only purported functions - Wireless Headphone (already exist), Lightning cables headphones (already exist), Lightning connected accessories (already exist). No one has given a good reason to REMOVE the 1/8" port, but only reasons not to use it. I have several great headphones that have this 1/8" plug; I do not plan on buying new ones, I will not buy any phone without a 1/8" port unless I can get a free adapter at any given point - at time of purchase or if I lose the first one. Not to f'n mention- the iPod Nano is MAYBE 1mm thicker than the 1/8" plug.
    iPod Nano depth = 0.21" according to Apple's store. So don't tell me removing the 1/8" port will ALLOW the iPhone to be slimmer, or make more room for whatever. Sent from the iMore App
  • Micro USB is a horrible plug and a challenge for even the clearly sighted. Lightning is better by far, but so is the audio jack. I think this might even shake out as an advantage for Apple because for Samsung to copy them this time, they will have to move to a Micro USB headset (unless Apple opens up lightning). That alone will make any Samsung copy of the new headphones "lesser" to some extent.
  • Samsung is already moving away from micro USB with the Note 7. Comes with usb-c. Option is there to use it but 3.5 remains as well. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Samsung are too scared to remove the jack, whilst Apple has the confidence to do it in order to move technology forward
  • What does removing it do to move anything forward? Nothing. It does not affect the availability of wireless or lightning port headphones. It does nothing. Sent from the iMore App
  • Just like removing the floppy disk did nothing to move technology forward? It could encourage other companies to do the same when they realise the benefit of removing an antiquated port
  • I recently purchased an Audio Quest Dragon Fly Red DAC that I use with my iPad pro in place of the internal DAC. It connects via the lightning connector with Apple camera connector. It sounds considerably better for music, audio streaming etc. There are no observable lags with video and audio that I can tell.
    The unit is about the size of a flash drive and probably not practical to have dangling from an iPhone.
    My main point is that the sound quality is superior and I would suspect Apples headpones with a built in DAC might also sound better. I don't know about a wireless bluetooth version though.
  • Only problem with that setup is the cumbersome-as-**** Apple Camera Connection Kit. The thing with MFI certification is that these DAC manufacturers (Audioquest, Chord etc) would need to open up their internals to Apple in the process, and that's not technology any of them would be willing to do, because it would allow Apple to hold them by the balls, more so now since Apple owns Beats, hence the requirement for the clumsy Apple CCK adapter-dongle. As if we don't have enough dongles to worry about with other Apple products already (looking at you, 1-port Macbook). A shame really. I quite liked the DF-Red. Possibly the best under $500 implementation of the ESS Sabre DAC chipset I've tried. If only it could be plugged in with a more ergonomic connection. With regards to headphones with built in DAC and amplification; it'll depend on price. The more expensive ones, like the Audeze Sine's Cyper cable for example, will obviously employ some form of DSP to compensate for the limited power they can draw from a device like the iPhone - Sine with Cypher lightning cable is better than Sine with regular 3.5mm cable plugged into iPhone, but plug that same analog cable into a dedicated DAC/amp (one with it's own battery) unit with enough juice and the 3.5mm connection will surpass the lightning connection again. Bluetooth is still some ways off compared to any cabled connection, but most people don't really seem to care anymore, judging from bluetooth headphone sales. Convenience beats quality, I suppose. Same reason why the mp3 and other compressed formats have survived to this day, after all. It's simply "good enough" for most users.
  • I never really used the 3.5 jack on any of my phones always used bluetooth headsets or bluetooth earpieces since the technology became available! To me it makes perfect sense to have removed the 3.5mm jack since it's a non digital old like early 19th century or older analog not digital audio port! People will complain and some won't upgrade and others will ditch iPhones all together... Here you are in the 20th century get with it huge it embrace it! ;) Great job on pointing out your difficulties Steven I sure hope you don't find charging or using Bluetooth headsets to much a chore as some who complain and have no rime or reason!
  • I couldn't agree more! This is just the exact same thing with how Apple removed the floppy drive. Everyone hated that they removed it, but soon everyone realized why it was removed; it was antiquated technology and Apple pushed technology forward, something they're very good at
  • My problem do not fix something that is not broke. Plugging cans into adapters, there is always the problem of connection sound quality. Same with any earphone/earbuds. Yes you can get sound transfer with the lighting connection, but again means buying adapters, or new headphones. I still get the "this accessory is not certified, and may not work" it is an Apple charging doc, Apple cable, Apple plug. How much more certified can you get. Yes I changed the cable, and plug, but on occasion will get the error message. I guess what I am saying, fix the bugs you have no matter how small before you take the earphone jack away. Do not get me on wireless, or Bluetooth. That is another sound issue. "The shortest distant between to points is a straight line" or in the case of headphones a straight connection. Sent from the iMore App
  • Yeah, my floppy disks aren't broken, neither is my VHS player, let's just keep using old crappy technology because it still "works"
  • Why not?? VGA is still in used by plenty of business and colleges. And believe it or not VHS are still used today. Sure the mass consumer market is no longer purchasing that type of media but to say it's no longer in use is kind of incorrect. Like Apple says "it just works." Everything about the iPhone has been doing fine with the headphone jack in, yet everyone else cannot explain how removing it will help it move forward?? Have smartphones in general not continue to push forward with the headphone jack in tact?? If all the removal of the headphone jack does is add an extra speaker and 10% more battery then wow, that's the BS that is considered moving forward?? You would think Apple would at least bring the 4-speaker set up on the iPhone but so far no possibility from that either. Believe it or not, there are people that don't want nor need Bluetooth headphones, period. That's regardless of tech moving forward or not.
  • ...are you serious? I know people still use these things but in reality the people that use them are a drop in a very large ocean, and there's no point accommodating such a minute amount of people. An extra speaker could make for a big improvement to sound quality, and you'd be surprised an extra 10% of battery can go a long way. Also, no one's saying that removing the headphone jack will force people to use wireless headphones, it's quite possible that Apple will use another type of connector, maybe sharing the lightning port. But you know, keep storing your data on floppy disks and watching tapes that degrade over time, I'll stick with modern technology thanks
  • "But you know, keep storing your data on floppy disks and watching tapes that degrade over time, I'll stick with modern technology thanks" When the **** did I say I still personally use this old tech?? If anything you proved my point. It doesn't matter if it's only a drop in the ocean, and whether companies should accommodate those people or not (that's a different argument) the point still stands that people use this tech for the primary reason that they are satisfied with it period. Go ahead and waste your $$ on the latest tech you probably don't need to begin with. But hey, then again I did so on buying Bluetooth headphones as well. It's not to say new tech is useless, but to call old tech useless as well in still invalid is some cases, and that was the main point. You can call the headphone jack useless yourself, but millions of people will continue to use for the next few decades. And if you honestly think that an extra speaker and 10% extra battery makes a difference for power users than hah!! You must be joking. The 6 Plus had a much bigger battery than the 5 yet the battery life was still the same.
  • "but millions of people will continue to use for the next few decades." Are you telling me millions of people still use floppy disks? That's certainly not the case, and I'm pretty sure if other companies follow removing the headphone jack it certainly won't have millions of people using it in the next few decades. Already Intel is planning to use USB-C instead of the 3.5mm headphone jack. http://www.theverge.com/2016/8/17/12519936/intel-usb-type-c-headphone-ja... The Moto Z has already got rid of the headphone jack, and if Apple and Intel go through with this that's two very big and reputable companies pushing forward with this change. And it does matter that it's a drop in the ocean, why do you think developers don't make apps for Windows Phone? Because barely anyone uses Windows Phones, so it becomes irrelevant. Sure these few people might be satisfied with their Windows Phone, but they're not going to get support for using something that pretty much no one else is
  • I usually use a bluetooth headset or bluetooth headphones, so losing the headphone jack isn't a big concern for me. Sent from the iMore App
  • I wonder what Apple did to reinforce the port. Sounds like using it for both charging and music will result in a lot more wear and tear.
  • The port is already pretty strong, and interestingly the fact that you can put the connector in either way stops people shoving it in the wrong way around and damaging the port. It's a lot stronger compared to microUSB ports that I've seen on Android devices
  • OK!
    I have question for author: if there is such a problem for you to put plug into socket why you didn't quit Apple sanctuary when wireless charging was introduced to the market? Apple will cut functionality of well known technologies they will decide to implement into they product as "amazing discovery" just to keep their customers behind bars. In fact every single "amazing" tech they add to they product is in fact another bar to the cage they keep in their customers. It is all for the MONEY! Sent from the iMore App
  • With bluetooth earbuds to almost never have to untangle. Once you turn them on then they are paired problem solved and no plugging earbud in.
  • I was really disappointed by the limited scope of this article. There are many more aspects to accessibility regarding the possible removal of the headphone jack and many of these are much more relevant in my opinion. Personally I have no problem plugging in the wired headphones even though I am practically blind. Voiceover users generally use headphones for a number of tasks that sighted individuals would not, for example for going through e-mail, surfing the web etc. for privacy reasons. As mentioned above, it is currently practically impossible to operate the devices with Voiceover using wireless headphones because of the latency involved.
  • Different use cases... Just one more thing Apple is trying to control, regardless of weather its better.. Some like that, others don't, and I will use what's right for me.. If i know its gonna be a major issue, i don't buy the phone, regardless of anything else Plus Apple is just following what Samsung have done anyway.. or visa vera...(can't remember which one announced/rumored it first)
  • I've noticed nobody's even talking about this article anymore, I for one am not concerned about the removal of the headphone jack in the upcoming iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. Sent from the iMore App
  • As with any change in technology, people will complain, then buy it anyway, then get used to it, then it's the norm. It's really not that big of a deal