A group of Grand Valley State University students has created a device that allows a child with type I spinal muscular atrophy to move and be independent.

SMA is a genetic muscle disorder that causes extreme weakness and affects 1 in 6,000 births.

The Play and Mobility Device was designed and built to give 16-month-old Lylah Gritter the ability to become mobile by controlling a joystick attached to a device she sits in. Lylah’s mother, Holly Gritter, said her daughter is gaining an independence that she’s never had before.

“She was terrified of the device at first because she’s never been able to control anything,” Holly said, “but you could see it quickly clicking with her and she realized she has this freedom.”

The project is funded through a five-year, $180,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for students and faculty members to create specialized devices for people with disabilities.

“Lylah is very verbal and smart, but has no ability to move herself,” said Lisa Kenyon, associate professor of physical therapy, who, along with a group of students majoring in physical therapy, is working with Lylah to use the device.

Kenyon said the ultimate goal is to help Lylah become qualified to get a power wheelchair, which can start at $10,000. Insurance companies require proof that individuals can drive a wheelchair and the Play and Mobility Device is helping Lylah and her family gather proof that she can control a device of her own.

The creators are engineering students Brandon Johnson, Kevin Yahne, Tyler Kramer and Dustin Martin. Yahne said this third and current prototype includes improvements such as easier access for Lylah to control the joystick with her hand, and a longer-lasting battery.

“The group of students has spent a lot of time and hard work on this project,” said Holly. “They’ve done a tremendous job at helping us and really adapting to her disability and understanding what she can and can’t do.”

Another engineering student is beginning work on a device that will support Lylah’s arms, so she can have better use and control of her arms.