When I was 18, I became the presenter of an information line for blind people in New Zealand. This predates the mainstreaming of the Internet, so it was a way for blind people to dial a number, hear a recorded message about the latest goings on in the blind community, then leave a message that would be played on next week’s episode. It was kind of like a podcast delivered by phone, long before podcasts were invented.
After I’d been doing this for a while, I attended a conference at which a blind woman who had a significant hearing disability collared me and told me that I needed to sound more like the BBC when I did these bulletins. My teenage self brushed her off abruptly and said that I was a New Zealander, talked like a New Zealander, and was proud of it. I could tell I had offended her.
Of course, what she was really trying to get across to me was that I should enunciate more clearly, so she could consume the information like everyone else.
Fast-forward to November 2015, and boy, I got the karma. Learning from a very reliable source that Apple was seriously contemplating removing the headphone jack from the iPhone 7, I wrote a blog post outlining why this would be a big deal to some of us who wear hearing aid technology, and why it might even be a big deal for a wider group as well. I’m not going to rehash those arguments yet again, but you can click through to the post to see that sadly, my predictions were accurate. I take no pride in saying that. This is an instance where I’d love to have been dead wrong.
When I published this post, it was met with a mixture of ridicule, accusations of scaremongering, and on the positive side, people who vowed to take a few minutes to send a message via Apple’s feedback form, even if they felt it didn’t affect them. This latter group had sufficient concern and empathy to know that if the world is less accessible for a group of us, it’s a less accessible world overall, and that’s not a good thing.
While I called for the retention of the headphone jack, I considered this outcome highly unlikely. But having conducted advocacy campaigns for nearly 30 years, some highly successful, some a dismal failure, I know you need to go in with your most desired outcome, and always be ready to find middle ground. It was my hope that, if the blind community could unite behind the needs of deaf blind people, many of whom have difficulty participating in forums such as this, we may at least get an adapter that accommodates the fact that VoiceOver users keep their phone’s audio going for longer. That has an impact on battery life, and it means that it’s particularly important to be able to use your device with something wired connected to a headphone output while the device charges.
Even if the removal of the headphone jack had been irrevocable by November 2015 when I started to blog about this, as someone with product management experience, I was confident that we had a lot more time to influence the adapter that might be included in the box.
Yesterday, Apple announced that yes, they were indeed removing the headphone jack, and sadly as I predicted, the adapter they’ll include in the box will not allow you to charge your iPhone while you listen to wired headphones.
There are a number of ways to work around this, but sadly, they all involve purchasing something in addition to the iPhone you just bought – a big ticket item in the budgets of many deaf blind people. So in that respect alone, they are all a retrograde step.
The Belkin Lightning Audio + Charge Rock Star is a $40 USD adapter that contains a Lightning plug that connects to the single Lightning port the iPhone 7 now contains. Hanging off the cable are two female Lightning connectors. You can plug a cable into one to charge your phone, and another Lightning device in the other. In the case of many hearing aid or cochlea implant wearers, that will mean you’ll have to plug Apple’s provided Lightning to 3.5 adapter into one of the Lightning ports, then your cable into the 3.5 mm jack that is dangling off it. So it could be a bit of cable spaghetti, but it is a solution that will I think work for most people if you’re able to shell out for the adapter, and take care with all the cables.
Based on all the comments I’ve read from sighted people on the desire they have to use wired headphones while they charge, I’m hopeful there’ll be yet another third-party accessory that will eliminate the second female Lightning connector in favour of a 3.5 connector. That will be one less cable to disentangle.
Those of you who listened to the recap of the Apple event on The Blind Side with Jeff Bishop, David Woodbridge and me may have heard this one already. David pointed out that the Apple Battery Case for the iPhone will give your phone a recharge, and it contains its own Lightning port. This means that if you want to use your phone with wired headphones while charging, you can, by plugging Apple’s supplied Lightning adapter into the case, then your headphones into the adapter. Apple is not the only game in town here, so you can score yourself a bit more juice, as well sadly as adding a bit more bulk, and use your phone while it’s charging. The downside here, other than the extra size, is that you’ll eventually need to charge the case. But you can do that while your phone had a full charge.
Apple sells a Lightning Dock in its store for $49 USD. This will charge your phone, provide speakers, and it contains a 3.5 mm headphone jack. If you charge your phone by the bed and just want to use it there, or perhaps you use it at the office where it’s plugged in, this could work for you. The product has a scary number of one star reviews in Apple’s Online Store, but people are more inclined to review in criticism rather than praise, and hopefully Apple will support you if you get a dodgy one.
A number of manufacturers, such as Griffin, sell a 3.5 to Bluetooth adapter. As you know if you’ve been following this debate, a lot of hearing aid streaming devices that use Bluetooth aren’t adequate for proficient VoiceOver users because of extreme lag and energy consumption issues. So some of these adapters may introduce the dreaded lag inherent in many Bluetooth audio devices with VO, but if they use Bluetooth 4.1, it’s possible that the lag will be less than some of the older streamers for hearing aids on the market. but I guess the only way we’ll know that is to try them. They may get you by while you get a quick charge.
And that brings me onto dealing with the subject of my post, why I’m getting an iPhone 7 Plus.
Although this headphone issue is creating challenges for us, challenges which exist in many use cases but are particularly compelling for deaf blind people, this hasn’t suddenly turned Apple into Darth Vader Incorporated. There is a lot to like from Apple at present, in terms of fantastic new software changes across all platforms. On the hardware side, the extra storage will be helpful to me, and I’m intrigued to explore the ways app developers might use the dual camera system in the 7 Plus to benefit blind people.
I don’t drop my phone in water often, but I confess I have done it once, so the water and dust resistance will be nice.
And of course people are kind enough to buy books I write about iThings, so my readers hopefully benefit from my first-hand experience, and that hopefully helps the bottom line here at Mosen Consulting.
I could probably manage to sit this cycle out, but the final thing that swayed me was a bunch of emails and a couple of tweets. I admit, I do find it a bit tough to have my motives questioned just for raising an issue that really matters a lot to a group we often don’t hear from. If you put yourself out there and state an opinion, people of course have just as much write to criticise that opinion as you do to express it. I get that. But I have been deeply moved by people who have emailed me, and there have been more than a couple of dozen, who have thanked me for speaking out for wearers of hearing technology. There’s more of us than you may think.
And ultimately, that’s why I’m getting the iPhone 7 Plus. Realistically, I think it’s very unlikely Apple will reverse the decision to ditch the jack, much as some people would like that to happen. So if I can use my iPhone 7 Plus, and what writing, technology testing and evaluation skills I have to help be a part of the solution in this next chapter of Apple’s journey, then it will be a pleasure to do what I can. If they do bring the jack back, hurray. If not, maybe I can help test and advise about products that may ease the transition as hearing aid and cochlea implant manufacturers adapt. It will take some time for those adaptations to filter through. Products have to be researched, designed and then brought to market.
Even after that, it can take a long time before such products are in the hands of end-users. Hearing aid technology at the profound end can cost many thousands of dollars. Even where funding is available, there are normally limits on how often that funding can be accessed by one individual. Once every five years is not uncommon.
I would like for Apple to have given the hearing aid industry plenty of notice, to have phased out the ubiquitous headphone jack in favour of an equally open standard that was being embraced by the entire industry, such as USB C, but we have to deal with reality. For me at least at this point, switching to another mobile platform would be too much of an accessibility hit in other respects. Android is simply not a viable platform for anyone who is deaf blind because of the abysmal Braille support.
So, I’ll continue to blog here about useful tips and gadgets for the hearing impaired as I begin this journey. I’m not hugely excited about the upgrade in some ways, yet I always relish a technological challenge.
Now, to fire up my Apple Store app in readiness. But before I do, its difficult for me to find words to convey how profoundly grateful I’ve been to everyone who has expressed understanding and empathy on this issue, even if it doesn’t effect them. For many of us that use hearing aids, the iPhone has become a big part of our working and personal lives. Yes, we have the legacy devices and will have for some time, but it has been stressful for many people to feel that we have to speak out and defend the access we already have as new devices are rolled out. I’m confident we’ll get there, even if the transition may be clunky at times. But the encouragement and expressions of support really are appreciated, not just by me, but by others in the same boat who have seen them too.,