A Former Cheerleader’s Experience Working in Tech after Eight Concussions
By Rachel Branch
I cheered in high school and college in co-ed squads. I was a flyer, so I was mainly in the air.
What goes up must come down, so the saying goes. What the saying doesn’t go on to say is what comes down can hit the ground pretty hard. I got dropped… A LOT.
I have had 8 concussions, though not all were cheerleading related. Once you’ve had one concussion you are more susceptible to future concussions. I once got a concussion from an incident with a refrigerator (don’t ask, it’s less interesting than it sounds).
About 4 years ago a series of traumas triggered the damaged area of my brain and I developed speech disfluency: a severe stutter. Every sound that came out of my mouth was stuttered. It took me 30 seconds to say hi (I know because I timed it).
Facilitating trainings is a core a part of my role, so I am always speaking at work. Since I couldn’t do my job for a period of time, I ended up going on disability leave while the doctors tried to figure out what was happening in my brain. I had more questions, prescription drugs and side effects from the drugs than I had answers. The doctors equated my condition to that of professional boxers at the end of their careers.
I went back to work a few months later, still stuttering, and I was freaking out about how I was going to function at work. I worked with my team to modify my responsibilities, but that actually wasn’t my primary concern.
My coworkers had a strong reaction to my stutter— they were concerned about me. However, those reactions were not good for my condition. I would get self-conscious and then immediately think this is going to be me for the rest of my life and I don’t know this person I’ve become, which in turn made my stutter more pronounced.
I worked for a smaller company at the time and I knew most everyone. I needed to figure out how to limit my interaction with people.
I asked for an accommodation to use the service elevator so I would bump into fewer people on the way to my office. This would help me until word spread about my condition and I had a chance to slowly bring people up to speed.
It was a small ask, but it made a world of difference for me. I learned from that experience to think through every factor that impacts my condition at work. This helps me to ask for accommodations that enable my best work.
I also realized that other people’s reactions to my condition weren’t as bad as I anticipated. Were there insensitive people? Of course there were. But in my experience, most people’s missteps were due to a lack of awareness and naiveté, not malice.
Eventually my stutter went away. But my condition is chronic, so I can’t predict the next onset. My stutter has come back on a few occasions, which has resulted in subsequent necessary accommodations.
I still struggle with patience, acceptance and non-judgement during the onsets. We can be really mean to ourselves at times. When this starts to happen I ask myself if a friend were in my situation, would I tell them what I am telling myself? The answer is always a resounding no, so that helps to keep my thoughts in check.
What has helped the most with managing my condition at work is the support of people around me. I am a very private person, and despite working at Facebook, I don’t post on Facebook very often. I started sharing my story at first for self-preservation, because it helped me accept my own reality. People can’t support you if they don’t know what is going on or what you need.
Now I share my story, because it has helped others and I hope maybe it helps you as well.
Rachel Branch works for Facebook in Menlo Park. She is an avid shoe collector, true crime aficionado, hockey lover and lifelong fan of glitter.
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