Rotem Elnatan is a typical 19-year-old.
He hopes to move out of his parents’ house someday soon. He’d like to do some National Service, the alternative for some to Israel’s mandatory two-to-three-year army service. He’s very interested in dating. He loves music, and his skill as a DJ gets crowds dancing at parties.
Rotem, who has cerebral palsy, does all that from his wheelchair — but one of the reasons he’s been able to move forward in life is because of his mother’s invention, the Upsee, a harness that helps children with special needs see what it’s like to walk.
Debby Elnatan’s Upsee comprises a belt that goes around an adult’s hips, a harness that secures a young child and allows him or her to stand, and shared sandals that allow the adult and child to walk together, leaving their hands free. It typically can be used with children ages one through eight.
She created it for Rotem.
From his current perch in a wheelchair, Rotem still smiles at the memory of a younger version of himself who could take jaunts to the store. That’s what the Upsee is about, Debby Elnatan said — enriching the childhoods of those who use it, whether they continue to walk or not.
“Childhood establishes a person’s personality, their place in the world; it’s where they get their needs met or not,” Elnatan said. “Upsee was part of his childhood.”
Now, after many years in development, Leckey, a United Kingdom- and Ireland-based company offering a range of positioning tools for children with disabilities, is selling the product through a brand called Firefly. It costs about $500 and is now available online.
Elnatan went through countless names for the product, but it was Leckey that dubbed it “Upsee.”
“They didn’t want to disillusion parents that their kids are going to get up and start walking,” Elnatan said. “It basically gets the kids up — and then they see.”
The opportunity to explore
Elnatan and her husband, Zohar, who live in Jerusalem and provide music therapy in schools, have three boys; Rotem is the middle son.
When Rotem’s doctors told Elnatan her two-year-old son didn’t know what his legs were, she was determined to help him walk — but getting down on the ground with him was difficult. So she picked up her tools and built something that would allow them to walk together. It went through a range of iterations before becoming the device that is available to other parents today.
Over the years, as Rotem grew and Elnatan recognized other needs, she crafted many different pieces of equipment to help with sitting, standing and walking; she hopes to introduce some of them on a larger scale in the future.
Physical therapists — as well as parents of children with special needs — have commended the Upsee as a valuable tool for children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Rett syndrome or other conditions that delay their physical development and affect their ability to walk.
That kind of recommendation — as well as business development help from Dr. Yehuda Zicherman, an expert in developing medical technologies; legal assistance from Yigal Arnon & Co., and advice from Nava Gelkop, a physical therapist and the head of Keren Or’s health professional team, which works with children in schools — helped Elnatan move forward with Upsee.
The Upsee has several immediate benefits and potential uses for both physical therapy and everyday life, Gelkop said. Its joined sandals allow either the child or the adult to set the pace, depending on the child’s needs. It improves children’s balance and their ability to hold up their heads. It helps them digest more quickly, because of the standing and walking they do. It improves their sleep through the exercise it provides. And it’s simple and fun — important considerations when trying to complete physical therapy with a small child.
Gelkop has used treadmill therapies in the past for people with similar needs as those using the Upsee but said this product has an added plus.
“It’s boring to walk on a treadmill,” she said. “But walking outside, walking in a park, going somewhere — you can learn, you can accept the world, you can go and smell and touch.”
She added that the Upsee doesn’t guarantee that every child who uses it will be able to walk forever, but it does give them a different perspective.
“It’s about giving them the opportunity to explore the environment in a meaningful way,” she said.
She hopes the product will be researched in the future to further define its uses for children with developmental disabilities.
How it helps
Several families were able to try the Upsee prior to its formal release, including that of four-year-old Amichai Avner. Amichai has a syndrome that kept his brain from developing properly; its surface is smooth, rather than ridged, which delays both his cognitive and physical development.
One of the first times Amichai tried the harness, he quickly lifted his head and smiled when someone spoke to him — the change was clear, said Nomi Avner, his mother.
Avner said the biggest benefit the Upsee has provided her son in the two months he has used it is increased social interaction.
“He’s not sitting or lying, and he can be the size of other children, and he can move around,” Avner said. “He has two sisters, and he can be with them.”
Amichai’s response was physical, too, Avner said. He was putting weight on his feet for the first time. When his mother stopped walking, he pushed on.
“I never, ever thought he would walk,” she said. “And this gave me some kind of hope that even if he doesn’t walk alone, he could do it; he’s part of it. It’s not just me doing it for him — I feel him pushing.”
By physically bringing Amichai to other people’s level, the Upsee has given the child his greatest pleasure — being with people and having them talk to him. Although he can’t speak, his mother said he communicates with his eyes and through the sounds he makes.
“People come up to talk to him and interact with him,” Avner said. “He’s not just like a child with special needs on the side.”
For now, seeing the Upsee’s success among the families who have tried it before its release is incredibly rewarding, Elnatan said.
“I don’t stop crying,” she said. “One mother said she always imagined her kids walking down the street, holding hands, and it never happened, and now it’s happened.”
Other children have kicked a ball or waved at neighbors for the first time.
The family business
The Upsee was a family affair. Elnatan’s oldest son, Shachar, now 20, was the first to suggest Elnatan commercialize the product. Her youngest son, 12-year-old Inbar, now critiques her business plans — “Mom! THIS is the number you think you’re going to sell?”
Inbar — a poised, diminutive old soul who loves Led Zeppelin, Queen and breakdancing — has shared a bedroom with Rotem all his life. Born into a musical family, the boy plays guitar and upright bass, enjoys shooting hoops and likes to draw. He breakdances in a group that plans to travel around Israel — dancing might be the occupation of his 20s, he said, but he plans to play music for the rest of his life.
Rotem and Inbar’s bedroom wall is covered with a large painting of a DJ, courtesy of their father; it is surrounded by Inbar’s drawings. A music stand is situated beside the bunk bed. He admitted, as all siblings might especially when they share a room, that he and Rotem can have their squabbles — but they always work them out.
And he’s proud of his big brother’s talent for DJing.
“I think it’s really incredible that he can do something like this,” Inbar said. “He has problems with his hands and eyes — it’s amazing.”
As Inbar played a computer game one afternoon, Rotem sat feet away, using a laptop and touchpad controller to add effects to remixed songs by Owl City, Maroon 5, Psy, David Guetta and others — songs people dance to. Across the room, a large, mixed-breed dog named Bear watched the action as he lounged underneath a table. The sun pouring in through the propped-open deck doors illuminated Rotem’s wide smile as he worked, sometimes using just one finger to change a song’s sound.
His mother said he transforms into a rowdy, joking entertainer when he has a microphone at his mouth. He didn’t have one that afternoon, but that didn’t stop him from turning the conversation around with lightning-quick humor.
“You want to know what I eat for breakfast?” he asked, an impish grin spreading across his face.
He’ll tell you, too — he likes pancakes and popovers.
Rotem has a talent for languages. In addition to Hebrew and English, Rotem speaks some Arabic and once surprised his parents by letting off a stream of fluent Tagalog.
Like any other 19-year-old, he has dreams. He wants to work with children through National Service, and he’d like to move out and live in community-style apartments geared toward adults with special needs.
“I’m working on it,” he said. “It’s not going to happen now — it’s going to happen in a few years.”
“And,” he added, “I want a girlfriend.”
Elnatan said she doesn’t know which of these ambitions Rotem will achieve. But she and Zohar are excited to see him try. In the meantime, he has smaller goals, like finding secondhand lighting to use at his parties.
“He’s thinking about what he can do, rather than what he can’t do,” Elnatan said.
A video of Rotem DJing at one of his school parties shows students and teachers shimmying and clapping as he spun tunes and called out, “Who wants more?” One student in a wheelchair, sporting a cap made of tied-together balloons, smiled from ear to ear as a teacher spun his chair in a circle. Once again, Rotem achieved his goal — his audience is dancing.
Rotem recalled using the earliest versions of the Upsee to walk to the corner mom-and-pop store to buy candy, or to take a stroll with his mom to pick up pizza for the family.
In the same way that she’ll stand behind him now to help him with his touchpad, Elnatan stood behind three-year-old Rotem as he took his first steps with her invention.
“We have to empower our kids — even if it’s behind the scenes,” she said. “Our whole lives with these kids, we’re behind them, supporting them, empowering them — it’s like that with Upsee.”