Extreme Home Makeover (EHM) is an Emmy nominated reality show on ABC. Families who need some extra help get sent on a week-long dream vacation. During that short 7-day period a group of designers come in to completely remodel the familys home. Judy and Larry Vardon live in Oak Park, Michigan where they have two sons, Stefan and Lance. Judy volunteers her time working with children who are blind and deaf teaching sign language and braille and Larry is a welder for a car manufacturer. Stefan plays football and is a nature lover and Lance is a music prodigy. The family faces some challenges, as both Judy and Larry are deaf and Lance is blind and autistic. Judy and Larry have an especially difficult time keeping track of Lance, who likes to let himself out of the house in the middle of the night. The EHM team did an amazing job in remodeling the house, not only increasing the aesthetic beauty of it, but creating one of the most connected homes in the US! Changes in floor plans were made to create a more open environment for the visual communication style that the family uses. Lances safety was paramount and Judy and Larry needed a way to visually keep track of Lance. The EHM team installed a system of computer consoles, video cameras, visual and tactile signals, GPS tracking capabilities and keypad access to all parts of the house to accomplish this goal. Lance loved to swing in the backyard, so the EHM team built the most amazing swing you could ever believe! This was capped off with a visit from Oscar winner Marlee Matlin www.marleematlinsite.com/, who then introduced the family to Bill Austin of the Starkey Hearing Foundation www.sotheworldmayhear.org. Bill proceeded to fit Judy and Larry with digital hearing aids and then gave a $50,000 check to Stefan for a college scholarship. I remember watching the EHM team help the Vardon family on television and I was particularly impressed with the effectiveness with which the design team was able to accommodate the needs of this family. I would encourage anyone who wants to see how technology and design can make a difference in improving lives to watch this particular episode of EHM. If the reader would like to see some segments of the show, select the Video Player menu item in the Vardon Family section of the EHM website.
I spent some time with Judy and Larry to talk about their experiences on EHM. Special thanks to Stefan Vardon who worked as the sign language interpreter as I met with his parents.
Dybala: First off, I want to thank all of you today for taking time to meet with me, I really appreciate it. When I watched the transformation of your house on Extreme Home Makeover (EHM), it was very moving for me as parent, and as an audiologist. It was amazing to see not only the level of technology that was implemented in your house, but how perfectly it fit into your lifestyle. The group at EHM really did a phenomenal job!
Judy Vardon:: We agree completely. It still blows me away when I think about everything that they were able to do for us!
Dybala: I wanted to spend some time today talking about the technology that was installed in your house, the Starkey hearing aids that you were fitted with and your experience with all of these new devices.
Larry Vardon:: Sounds good!
Dybala: I have to say it again, your house is amazing! The technical improvements are quite impressive. Out of all of the technology added to your house, what have you found the most useful or most important?
Judy Vardon:: The most important thing for us, especially myself, is the security and monitoring system. Lance was always walking around the house and if I could not see him, I did not know where he was. So before, I always had to watch him and see where he was going and if he was not in my direct line of sight, I was constantly wondering Where is he? Now that we the cameras and monitors in the house, it makes it that much easier to keep track of where Lance is. With a quick look I can see where he is. Before, I felt so stressed and now I can relax more knowing where Lance is and that he is safe.
Larry Vardon:: I agree, the monitoring and alarm system is a really big deal, especially at night. We can sleep knowing that if Lance leaves his room there is an alarm that will go off, the lights will flash and the bed will vibrate and so we know what is happening. Before we had the equipment installed, it was really difficult to keep track of Lance.
Judy Vardon:: Before the system was installed, we were almost never able to sleep through the night! We always had to check and check and check to make sure that he was in his room. I remember there was one time (prior to the installation of the security system) he was missing and I just froze, my heart stopped. I had no idea where he was and I was just hoping he was ok. Luckily, that night he was out on his swing in the backyard!
Dybala: Yes, the swing. One of my favorite non-technology additions to the house was the swing upgrade for Lance. I must say the designers even did an extreme makeover on the swing!
Judy Vardon:: (laughs) Oh yes!
Dybala: I am new father, so when I watched the show I identified very strongly with your feelings of wanting to make sure Lance is safe!
Im glad you mentioned the video cameras and the monitors. They have another added benefit since the two of you are deaf and primarily communicate through sign language.
Judy Vardon:: Yes, not only can we keep tabs on Lance, but we can use them to communicate with each other through sign language. Most people take for granted that they can talk to each other when they are in different rooms, with sign language if you cannot see the other person, you are not talking!
Larry Vardon:: It really simplifies things. Thanks to the cameras and video monitors we can sign to each other without having to always walk back through the house.
Dybala: I wanted to touch on just one other aspect of the house. What thing outside of all of the technology have you enjoyed the most?
Larry Vardon:: Before the remodel, the living room and the kitchen were divided, there was a huge wall and we could not see if Lance was going out the back door. Now that they have taken out that wall I can sit in the living room, and I can see all the way into the dining area and kitchen and I can see the back door. It is also easier to communicate with my wife as there is a clear line of sight between the kitchen, the living room and the dining area.
Judy Vardon:: Whenever I am cooking and I want to talk to someone who is in the living room, it is great, as I do not need to leave the kitchen. Now that it is open it is so much easier to talk and we actually talk a lot more! Everyone can sit in the kitchen and in the living room and everyone can see each other so it is so much better. This was really useful to us and a big improvement.
Dybala: Yes, I was really impressed with the way the design team took that aspect into consideration during the remodel.
I want to switch gears now and talk about your hearing aids from Bill Austin at Starkey. Its my understanding that due to the severity of your losses you use the hearing aids more for the awareness of sounds versus speech understanding. Is that correct?
Judy Vardon:: Yes, we have been profoundly deaf our entire lives and so the hearing aids give us more of an awareness of sounds than anything. After I got my hearing aids some people came up to me and said, Thats a miracle, you can hear again! I have to tell them, no, its not what you think. When I put in the hearing aids I am not able to listen like a person with normal hearing as I am profoundly deaf to start with. Some people might ask, Why do you wear hearing aids or need hearing aids when you communicate with sign language? Thats a fair question. I always thought of myself as deaf, but the hearing aid, it gives me a chance to hear different sounds. It gives me a chance to interact with the world at another level using my hearing.
Larry Vardon:: I agree. The small things I hear can make a big difference. Before hearing aids, I had a hard time with my own voice, I would actually yell more often as I could not hear or monitor the level of my voice and the hearing aids help with that. Now that I can catch different sounds, when I am upstairs I can actually hear Lance on the piano a little bit and so that is nice. Its also good as they help to make me more independent as I do not have to depend on Stefan as much when keeping track of Lance.
Judy Vardon: I always imagine if I had never met Bill Austin. I dont know what would have happened if he would have not come into our lives.
Dybala: It is really great listening to your stories. It sounds as if hearing aids help you to connect to the world and Bill Austin and Starkey are a big part of that.
Judy Vardon:: Yes, absolutely.
Dybala: I wanted to ask something else about your hearing aids. Normally, our brains take time to adjust to newly amplified sounds. How have you two been doing with your new hearing aids?
Judy Vardon:: Oh yes! I understand. I hadnt worn a hearing aid for almost 25 years and I have a very severe loss. So, when Bill put the hearing aid on at first, I could not make sense of anything. He said it would take time, you have to feed your brain with the sounds. I would say it was a couple of days later I started to pick up sounds and I could tell more of what was going on around me.
Larry Vardon:: It was an adjustment to the hearing aids, but I am glad we stuck with it. What is amazing to me is how far the technology has come forward with hearing aids!
Judy Vardon:: The only problem I have now is that I can hear Larry snoring! (laughs)
Dybala: (laughing) Well, thank goodness your hearing aid has an off button!
Judy Vardon:: Yes! (Larry is smiling).
Dybala: I would love to talk more, but we are running out of time. I do want to acknowledge Stefan who has been working tirelessly as an interpreter between myself and his parents, thank you!
Stefan Vardon: Youre welcome, not a problem.
Dybala: So, one last quick question goes to you Stefan. At the end of the EHM show you were given a sizeable scholarship from the Starkey Hearing Foundation for college. Have you decided what college you are going to?
Picture of the Vardon Family, the EHM Design Team, Marlee Matlin and Bill Austin.
Credit: abc.go.com Copyright 2004
Stefan Vardon: No, not yet. I still have a couple of years left in high school and so I want to really look around and make sure I have explored all of my options.
Dybala: Well, I think that is a good decision. Thanks again for helping me out today and thank you Judy and Larry for taking time to speak with me. It very was nice meeting all of you.
Judy Vardon:: Thank you!
Larry Vardon:: Yes, thanks!
Judy is writing a book about the Vardon family and their experiences, it will be available in Fall 2006.
For information concerning the Stefan Vardon scholarship fund contact:
Vardon Brothers Trust
C/O Merrill Lynch Financial Services
P.O. Box 721084
Berkley, MI 48072-0084
About the Starkey Hearing Foundation
Since 1973, Starkey has been giving the gift of hearing to the worlds underprivilegedespecially childrenthrough its internationally recognized mission program and its domestic program, Hear Now. Since 2000, the Starkey Hearing Foundation has provided more than 130,000 hearing aids to those in need around the world. Visit www.sotheworldmayhear.org to learn more.
About Starkey Laboratories
Headquartered in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, Starkey Laboratories, Inc. is a worldwide provider of comprehensive digital hearing systems, including custom and standard devices, protection products, instrumentation and unique business solutions. Founded in 1967, Starkey owns the Audibel, Micro-Tech, NuEar, Omni and Qualitone companies and operates facilities in 24 countries. Starkey is the recognized world leader in the design and development of innovative custom digital hearing instruments. For more information visit www.starkey.com