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Mom's invention lets special-needs children walk for the first time

Debby Elnatan's son was 2 years old and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. She just couldn't accept that.

When Debby Elnatan's son, Rotem, was born with cerebral palsy, doctors told her he would never be able to walk.

For the first couple of years, Elnatan, who lives in Jerusalem, accepted her son's limitations and tried to give Rotem the best life she could.

"He cried almost the entire first year," Elnatan said. "And one day his physical therapist looked at us and said, 'Your child doesn't know what his legs are.'"

So when Rotem was 2, Elnatan started manually walking him, which involved getting down to his level, on her hands and knees – a position that became physically straining after a short time. She thought, "There has to be a better way."

Over the next few years, she went to work to create an apparatus that would support Rotem's weight, keep him upright, and help him walk. After several failures, and with help from other physical therapists and medical technology experts, she came up with what would later be known as the Firefly Upsee, a standing and walking harness for children with motor impairment. 

Elnatan's invention has been launched worldwide, thanks to a Northern Ireland-based company called Leckey. It went on sale this month and is now available for the public.

The system includes a harness for the child, which attaches to the parent's waist, and specially engineered sandals. The device allows the parent and child to step simultaneously and leaves their hands free for play and other tasks.

The Firefly team, part of the Leckey company, worked closely with Elnatan to design and manufacture the product for the international market. A team of designers, engineers, textile experts and therapists have worked on the project since 2012.

Thanks to the lightning speed of social media, news of the Upsee has spread far and wide, with outlets ranging from MSNBC to People Magazine singing the praises of Elnatan and her “incredible invention.”

And parents of special-needs children are quick to join in on those praises.

Maura McCrystal of Draperstown, Northern Ireland, mother of 5-year-old Jack, said she recently watched her son play soccer with his dad, his brothers and dog for the first time.

"To see Jack playing like any other 5-year-old boy made me very emotional," McCrystal said. "Jack and his brothers so enjoyed it."

Elnatan's son Rotem is now 19. Though he cannot walk independently, Eltanan said that's not what determines his quality of life. 

"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," she told From the Grapevine. "Rotem and others like him want accessibility, but not only physical. They want access to the world where they can make their dreams come true ... 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."

And though she's now able to enjoy the success of the Upsee and see its benefits worldwide, Elnatan said she's not ready to put away her inventor hat just yet.

"I am now in negotiations on another device of mine, and I have many other devices that I plan to commercialize," she said.

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Mom's invention lets special-needs children walk for the first time
When Debby Elnatan's son, Rotem, was born with cerebral palsy, doctors told her he would never be able to walk.For the first couple of years, Elnatan, who l