Son’s diagnosis leads Purdue HHS alumna to pursue new passion in adaptive sports

Written By: Rebecca Hoffa,

Julie Taulman and her son, Kyle, who dressed in ski gear, pose for a photo

Julie Taulman (left) and her son, Kyle, (right) pose for a photo at a ski competition.Photo provided

Purdue University College of Health and Human Sciences alumna Julie Taulman’s first introduction to adaptive sports came only months after her son, Kyle, became paralyzed in 2003. At two years old, Kyle was diagnosed with a stage-three, high-risk neuroblastoma cancer, which caused a tumor to wrap around his spine and prevented him from walking again. Despite the daunting diagnosis, the discovery of adaptive sports gave Taulman renewed hope that her son could live a normal life.

Now, nearly 20 years later, serving as director of business development at the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD), Taulman has made strides in making sports more accessible to individuals of all abilities, offering new outlooks and transformational experiences to families nationwide.

“I think the opportunity to be able to go to work every day, earn a living, and know that you’re giving back and doing something good for the community and other families who have gone through what we did, I think that’s very fulfilling,” Taulman said.

A new perspective

After the tumor was removed and Kyle’s cancer was stable, Taulman remembers feeling lost, having no information about paraplegia. She was connected to Shriners Children’s Hospital in Chicago, and it was there that she learned about adaptive sports.

“When I first got introduced to the adaptive world and the fact that someone could ski in a sit-ski, and someone could waterski, and they could bike, and they could go climbing — all of that really changed my perspective,” Taulman said. “I think adaptive sports opened my eyes up to opportunities I didn’t think were there.”

Coming from a family of avid skiers, one of Taulman’s early goals was for Kyle to learn to ski when he turned three — just like his brother had. The family took a holiday trip to Steamboat, Colorado, each December, and Taulman spent months trying to arrange for Kyle to be on skis that winter. She had located a sit-ski, and Kyle skied down his first slope in December 2004, initiating his love for the sport.

“We were on the slopes in Steamboat with a little tiny bi-ski, and someone was tethering him on the mountain, and I remember that moment,” Taulman said. “He doesn’t remember it, but for myself and my husband, it was that moment of going, ‘OK, we can do this. We can raise a child with a spinal cord injury.’ I think that was a huge transition for us, and from that point forward, it was really pushing the envelope to say, ‘How do I get my kid involved, and how do I keep him involved?’”

Developing a passion

Prior to Kyle’s diagnosis, Taulman had worked for many years in the newspaper industry as a publisher, having earned her bachelor’s degree from Purdue in 1991 with double majors in communication and psychological sciences. However, shortly after she received the news about Kyle’s paraplegia, Taulman’s newspaper was sold, and she received a severance package from the company, which allowed her to focus her time on her family and taking care of Kyle. She took on odd jobs as she was able, but Kyle remained her main focus.

A few years and many hospital visits later, Taulman finally felt ready to return to full-time work but this time, not in communications. Having gotten involved on the board of Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports (STARS), Taulman saw the need to hire someone to lead the program, and her husband encouraged her to apply. She got the job and led the organization for 10 years, overseeing the development of a new building where groups can participate in adaptive sports year-round.

Taulman noted she has seen countless individuals and families filter through both the STARS and NSCD programs throughout the years. Although her passion for adaptive sports started with a desire for her son to have the same opportunities as any other kid, it has grown to be much more than that.  

“There’s so many people where it’s been transformational in their lives, and that’s really powerful to see,” Taulman said. “I’ve stood in my office and watched people come in whose parents are bawling, saying, ‘I didn’t think my child would ever be able to do this.’”

Taulman credits her Purdue education in psychological sciences with rounding out her skills and helping with her career pivot that focuses so much on people.

“I think the reality is that you do have to understand human nature and how we all work together,” Taulman said. “In particular, in the nonprofit world and working with people with disabilities, how do we best support them, and how do we best support their goals, their independence and their self-esteem?”

Accessibility for all

Because of her experiences, Taulman’s goal is to make adaptive sports more affordable and more widespread because she has seen firsthand how these activities enable individuals with disabilities to find independence and joy.

Taulman noted that individuals who participate in adaptive sports often go on to have successful lives, whether that be in athletics, college or the workforce. Kyle recently competed in the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing, and he now attends the University of Colorado Boulder, where he plays adaptive tennis.

“I used to say that hospitals help heal individuals with disabilities, but adaptive programs help give them life again,” Taulman said. “Just being healed and getting out of the hospital but not being able to access anything with your peers, not being able to drive, and not being able to get in and out of your house, that’s not living.”

Taulman hopes institutions will do more to serve people with disabilities, including making a push to include more adaptive sports. In the meantime, Taulman plans to continue in her persistent pursuit to reach that goal.

“Instead of focusing on ‘I can’t do this,’ how do we refocus on ‘How can I make it happen?’” Taulman said. “I think that’s the innovation that keeps us moving forward.”