Maker Mom’s Love for Her Son Leads to Harness for Children With Disabilities

Debby Elnatan created the Upsee harness for her son, who has cerebral palsy, to help him explore the world around him when he was a child. Now, thousands of other children with disabilities are using the Upsee, too.
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Debby Elnatan created the Upsee harness for her son, who has cerebral palsy, to help him explore the world around him when he was a child. Now, thousands of other children with disabilities are using the Upsee, too.

Moms can be counted on to go the extra mile when it comes to their kids. Debby Elnatan, an American-born mom who lives in Israel with her family, decided to take matters into her own hands when it came to son Rotem, who has cerebral palsy.

When he was a small child, she came up with a harness device that allowed him to “walk.” It wasn’t an easy path from concept to mass market; it took nearly two decades. Finally launched last April by the Ireland-based company Leckey, Upsee is available for purchase online at Fireflyfriends.com. To date, more than 5,000 of these harness devices have been sold worldwide, and more are selling every day as word spreads of their availability.

The Upsee harness. (Photo courtesy of Debby Elnatan)

Photo courtesy of Debby Elnatan

Not Impossible Now interviewed Elnatan, a visionary and dedicated mother of three, via e-mail about her incredible journey of creating the harness and bringing it to market.

NIN: In how many countries has the Upsee harness been sold?

Debby Elnatan: One hundred (approximately).

Has Leckey been able to keep up with demand?

Elnatan: The demand was so great (2,000 order in the first two days), that at first the delivery time was 12 weeks. By late June, the delivery time was reduced to four weeks. Over the past few months, the U.K. delivery time is 2-5 days, and in the U.S., Canada and the rest of the world it takes 5-10 business days.

Leckey is based in Ireland. How did you connect with them?

Elnatan: I researched all of the rehabilitation companies in the U.S. and Europe and started approaching them. The best match for this product I felt was Leckey, as they understood the significance of the product and were willing to set up online marketing, which was one of my conditions. I also wanted the product cost to be reasonable for the consumer. Distribution models raise the price multiple times whereas, in general, online distribution prices can be lower. 

How and when did the idea of this harness come to you? What did you use for your prototype? Did it take several attempts? Did you have help?

Elnatan: When Rotem was as toddler, his physical therapists did not encourage us to try and have him crawl or walk. They were concerned it would raise his spasticity. So, much of his day was spent seated. It should not have come as a surprise when his therapists told us, “Rotem does not know what his legs are and that he has no awareness of them.” For (my husband Zohar) and I, this statement was a sad and shocking wake-up call, pointing to Rotem’s severe disability.

The Upsee harness. (Photo courtesy of Debby Elnatan)

Debby Elnatan and her son Rotem, using an early prototype of the Upsee. (Photo courtesy of Debby Elnatan)

I was in tears for two weeks before I desperately started to walk and stand with my son.

Being a violinist, I was of the opinion that practice makes perfect. I understand that Rotem’s sitting in a stroller was not going to get him far. Disobeying his therapists’ recommendations, I started to facilitate Rotem’s movements without telling them.

I learned to facilitate my son’s standing and walking, but stooping and kneeling to assist him made the task nearly unbearable for me. I just didn’t have enough hands to give him the support he needed. My lowest point was at a playground, where I walked Rotem back and forth between the slide and the ladder. As he had his turn going doing the slide, I felt the stares and pity of other moms, who were sitting on the park benches, while their children played freely. I felt sorry for myself, too. Returning home with back pain from the strenuous activity, I started my journey, which led me to Upsee.

At first, I made a primitive harness for Rotem and held him upright in it. I also tied our feet together. Unhappy with the result of that, I decided to create wooden sandals. Eventually, I designed a flexible double-sandal similar to those used in today’s Upsee. This design provided Rotem and I with the ability to learn from each other.

Rotem could feel and learn the components and synergy of my healthy gait, while I could feel his stepping initiation and follow his lead.

As we would near our destination, I could feel Rotem “voting with his feet” as he started to walk energetically.

Later, I made changes to the harness, such that Rotem was supported from my shoulders, leaving my hands free to assist him and his brother, Shahar.

There was still work to be done, though. Both harnesses underwent design modifications. My shoulder harness became a hip belt, which I found much more comfortable.

Rotem’s harness also changed until I found the design that encouraged full weight bearing, centered his pelvis, and allowed a reduced trunk support option, as Rotem’s trunk improved.

What’s your background? Did you have technical or mechanical skills that may have helped with the design?

Elnatan: I’m the mother of three boys, including Rotem, who is our middle child, born pre-term at 32 weeks with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy.

I grew up in the U.S. and have studied biology and music, but have worked in nearly every type of job you can imagine. (Music, construction, research, farming, computers, community organizing, fishing, lecturing, to name a few.) Working in various economic sectors has given me my greatest education in life. We are a family of musicians as well, and Rotem especially loves and knows music.

The Upsee harness. (Photo courtesy of Debby Elnatan)

Photo courtesy of Debby Elnatan

My dad was an engineer and quite the handyman. We used to build things together in his workshop. He used to give me tools for my birthday, such as a ratchet set to fix my car, an ohmmeter to fix my electrical devices and a vise for a worktable when I moved to Israel. My dad also taught me to sew, which was one of the most valuable skills in developing Upsee. I also own and use a variety of tools, such as drills and a jigsaw.

I have developed other rehabilitation devices. I created rehabilitation devices that can fit in daily with a child’s life at home. Instead of running around to treatment facilities all afternoon, I was able to let the children play and have fun at home while helping Rotem extend his physical therapy protocol into his daily life of play and other activities.

Are you a natural inventor?

Elnatan: Yes, I guess so.

Have you invented other helpful things that moms can use?

Elnatan: I have an entire suite of products providing for most of the needs of a child with gross motor dysfunction, and I’m working intensively to bring those other products to market. I have endless inventions for children and adults with special needs.

What feedback have you received from customers?

Elnatan: The response has been phenomenal. The news has quickly reached the four corners of the Earth. It is being used creatively, such that children can fly a kit, play ball, wash a car, walk along the shore, hug their family members, dance, go fishing, run and walk in marathons, empty the kitchen cabinets or refrigerator and more.

Is there one particular story that has moved you?

Elnatan: There is a beautiful story of a 4-year-old flower girl [in the U.K.] who could walk down the aisle with her aunt thanks to the Upsee. 

What challenges did you face getting the Upsee to market and do you think it may have helped being a mom knowing that your product could help other moms?

Elnatan: I quickly saw that what I had done for my son could help so many others. I had invested years developing products for Rotem that could help others around the world. I had to find a way to get these products on the market. This would support my family, return my investments and allow other children with CP and their families to have a better quality of life, so they could enjoy the benefits that result from being able to include your child in the family and the community. Entrepreneurship was the only way to go.

The Upsee harness. (Photo courtesy of Debby Elnatan)

Photo courtesy of Debby Elnatan

I was concerned, though, about starting my own company and doing the design, manufacturing and sales myself. I rejected that idea as my dad, brother and sister had their own businesses, and I did not see myself running a business. Raising a child with special needs already demands a great commitment, and I felt that I could not handle managing a company myself.

I searched for an appropriate business partner but since the market is considered niche, those trained and experienced in business were not interested. Investors were not interested for the same reason.

My cousin Hana saw how frustrated I was and agreed to invest in me. I was frightened that I would lose her money so I started contacted existing manufacturers of rehab products so I could bring the Upsee to market. At this stage, I was fortunate to meet Dr. Yehuda Zicherman, an expert in developing medical technologies. He took an interest in my products and saw their potential. With his guidance, I upgraded my prototypes a few more times, researched the market, prepared presentations on all aspects of the Upsee and was off to Ireland to meet the people at Leckey Designs.

Leckey was equally excited by the idea of getting kids upright while seeing the world around them and gave my product its name. A wonderful collaboration has evolved, resulting in the aesthetic and user-friendly product that went to market April 7, 2014.

What advice do you have for other moms who have ideas that could help others but don't know where to start?

Elnatan: We moms have enormous power. Don’t accept the world as you see it now. Use your imagination and your creativity. The sky is the limit. Believe in yourself, but learn business skills and work hard. Prince Charming will not ride up on a white horse and take your hand and lead you to success. It is a very long and hard road. Persistence is important. Getting good advice from experienced people in business is important. Find out who your market is. Evaluate and document your product well. Don’t be afraid of hard work. Learn how to present your product. Try to be positive no matter what the situation is and establish contacts and collaborate with different companies.

What the age range for the Upsee?

Elnatan: Ages 1-8, though it depends on the height and weight of the child. See the Firefly website to do a self-assessment.

The product cost around $500? Will that figure lower as the demand goes up?

Elnatan: I do not decide on pricing. This is a question for Firefly. I have not heard about any changes to the price.

Do you think there is enough being done in terms of research into cerebral palsy or coming up with assistive devices that could improve the quality of life for people with CP?

Elnatan: It is certainly not at the top of any priority list, unfortunately. I could not get investors or government agencies to take an interest in bringing these devices to market. They all said the market was too small. It took me 18 years to get my first product to market.

How old is Rotem now?

Elnatan: 19.

How has the Upsee made a difference for him and for you and your family?

Elnatan: Rotem cannot walk independently but that is not what determines his quality of life. Adults with physical disabilities claim that their quality of life is determined by factors such as communication, participation and social life. Rotem had many benefits from Upsee, such as a fun and active childhood and quality of life. He also gained motor skills and orthopedic benefits from being upright and bearing his weight.

Rotem has all of the same needs as everyone else, which is the need to participate fully in life, whether he is age 2 or age 19. He and others like him want accessibility, but not only physical. They want access to the world where they can make their dreams come true.

The Upsee was one of my many special solutions for Rotem who, as a preschooler, deserved to get out of his stroller in order to explore the world around him like any other child. I am hoping that, together with Firefly Friends, we can help many more children around the world, who are waiting to get up off their chairs and out of their standers and see the world around them as they move through it.

I am certain that Rotem’s smile, his good nature and his sense of humor are a direct result of his participation in family and community activities. The proof of my making the Upsee family friendly was that it was Rotem’s older brother himself who first encouraged me to commercialize it.

My husband and I have the same attitude today with Rotem, who deejays parties occasionally at his school. We, as parents, see our role as being helpers behind him, like the Upsee, while allowing him to achieve his full potential.

What else would you like to share with our readers?

Elnatan: People with disabilities do not have special needs. They have the same needs as everyone else. They need to participate fully in life. What is special is finding solutions. As a product developer, I make it my business to invent the tools that open the door into a world where those with disabilities can make their dreams come true.

Learn more about the Upsee at Fireflyfriends.com and by watching the video below:

Top photo courtesy of Debby Elnatan