Q&A: MVP Mitch Muenster Talks About Accessible Tech, And Being A Developer With A Neurodiversity
Visual Studio and Development Technologies MVP Mitch Muenster is a Certified Xamarin Mobile Developer, and an advocate for those working in tech with disabilities. And today, we’re very excited to feature him in our Q&A series!
Mitch tells us about what it’s like to work as a developer with autism, the accessible tech tools helping those like him to tap into their ‘superpowers,’ and Microsoft's efforts to support people with neurodiversities. He also offers some words of encouragement for those with neurodiversities - as well as for the parents caring for them. Check it out what he had to say:
1) Tell us a bit about your experience working in tech as a developer with autism, and about the work you’re doing in accessible tech.
To be honest, most of my work has not just been in one area. As I have stated in talks and videos, I also have ADHD and dyslexia. These conditions play together to create some strengths, but they also can make things difficult when I’m working with products where the UX is not properly fine-tuned or easy-to-use.
Those on the autism spectrum – no matter how high functioning they are – have a set amount of points to spend in their day. The amount is different for each person, but those points for a person with autism, ADHD, or dyslexia are less [than] for someone who is not on the spectrum or neurotypical. Each thing we do in our day has a point cost to it. How many points it costs depends on a number of factors, as well as what else happened that day before the activity. An example I like to give of the point allocations and how this all works for someone with autism, ADHD, and dyslexia (though it need not be this specific combo) and how it relates to technology, is something like navigating and using a website like Azure or AWS.
You have a lot of information on these sites and it’s usually packed together in a dense way – that can make it hard for someone with ADHD or dyslexia to read and process. If the UI has been done in such a way that not only there is a high information density, but focus is put not on what I need to see but other aspects of the site, it now costs me more than it would if the information was laid out in a way that makes processing it easier.
If parsing through the site only costs a neurotypical say 2 points, it could cost me 6-10 points. If my day has been stressful or I have been in a loud room... that multiplies that point value to be 2x - 3x more. And now reading something that normally would take 2 points, is costing me 12-30 points. It could be more for others. Helping make people aware of these things and making software less expensive in this regard is where I am trying to do a lot of my work.
2) In a discussion with Channel 9 about accessible tech, you mentioned that 'everyone has their own superpower.' How do you build tools that help to bring these superpowers out?
I look at what we would consider the negative aspects of a person, and think about how it might affect their day. Like in the example above, if because of dyslexia (or some other physical disability), a person has issues reading and processing dense information, I try to build the UI to help eliminate issues with processing – such as adding spacing around the words and laying out the UI in a different way.
3) What tools are you building – or what tools would you like to see built – to combat these challenges?
Sadly there is no magic tool to help combat these issues. It’s all about how people build their existing tools and websites to make sure issues of crowding, information density, and proper focus are fixed in software. As far as learning and assistance with parsing info is concerned, I would love to see something that can mimic or replace asking a person about coding or processes. Most of the time I can get the help I need not from a video or documentation, but being able to talk/ask/learn from a living human being. Currently this does not scale well, and a lot of people do not fully understand why a framework or tool implements things a specific way – so it can be hard for them in return to help with the questions or make the most of the framework or tool.
There are some extensions that I use currently to help me such as:
- The Fluent fonts for those with Dyslexia
- Color Themes for Visual Studio
- Surface Dial for Visual Studio
- I also use a spell checker extension for Visual Studio.
4) What are your favorite ways Microsoft has supported people with disabilities – whether it be at events, or with their tools?
For me it has been the ability to use the work they have done so far in my world, and how open they are to getting feedback and incorporating it into the products or events. There also have been opportunities for me to be able to do the work myself via open source if there is a delay or if other things cause the product teams to not be able to react right away on that feedback.
One thing that is common amongst those with autism, is that when we find something that falls on our "autistic interest" we are hungry for knowledge and people to talk to about that topic. When I was little for example I loved trains. Real or model ones - it didn't matter. I did tons and tons of research. It was real people - not manuals and documentation - that helped grow that knowledge.
It's the same way with tech. If it were not for Microsoft and MVPs in the MVP program, I would not be the programmer I am today. The MVPs helped me translate the knowledge that was locked up in the tech manuals and documents, and put it into the context I need. Without MVPs, I may not have been able to discover how to use my own super power.
5) Do you have anything else to add?
Don’t be disheartened because physical disabilities are getting all the attention right now in the accessibility space. There are people like myself who are working to try and improve things for everyone.
If you are someone who develops software or hardware (tech or non-tech) - or if you have a family member or friend who has something like I do or some other form of neurodiversity - if you are not thinking about these things you’re just making it harder for them to use what you make.
If you are a parent with a child on the spectrum or with any other neurodiversity, there is hope – it’s just not going to fall into your lap. It will take work and at times be demanding, but making sure they get the proper help and the proper support - and not giving in or giving up has the best effect your child. And while we may not always say it or realize it, that work is what helps make our future better. I certainly would not be who I am today, and be able to draw on my own superpowers if it were not for the work my parents had done for me.