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 Aquino

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.