St. Louis native’s ‘95 Decibels’ explores deafness in children

From left: Tyler Hollinger, Edward Furs, Susannah Frazier, Megan Corry and Emma Catucci (front) star in ‘95 Decibels.’ Photo: Taylor McIntyre

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Ninety-five decibels is a loudness threshold used in measuring hearing loss, the point at which profound hearing loss begins. “95 Decibels” is also the title of a short film about a young couple facing a diagnosis of deafness in their daughter. 

The 27-minute drama was written and directed by former St. Louisan Lisa Reznik. It is part of the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, which runs July 13-17 at the Tivoli Theater in the Delmar Loop. The film is based on Reznik’s experiences as the parent of a deaf child. Reznik grew up in St. Louis but lives in New Jersey now; her film is part of the showcase’s expatriate evening of short (less than half-hour) films.

When Erica (Megan Corry) notices that her toddler daughter Sophia (Emma Cattucci) is not responding to her name, she and her husband, Dylan (Tyler Hollinger), are concerned. Although their pediatrician suggests they wait and see, the worried parents persist. A diagnosis of deafness plunges them into a maze of conflicting medical advice, insurance company denials and difficult choices. 

The film also features Goran Višnjic (Dr. Luka Kovac on TV’s “ER”) as a doctor who specializes in cochlear implants. 

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It is an important topic that deserves attention. Ashkenazi Jewish families have a greater chance of a genetic-caused deafness, although the incidence of deafness overall among Jewish families is the same as the general population. Partly an exploration of the challenges facing parents of a deaf child, the film is also a critique of the medical profession and insurance companies, where lack of awareness and delays in diagnosis and treatment can have serious effects on the language ability of deaf children.

Reznik knows this territory well. When asked during a recent phone interview about how closely the film follows her experience, she replied, “Pretty exact.”

“The scene with the pediatrician telling me we could wait to take my daughter for a hearing test, that actually happened,” she said. “Since then, we have a different pediatrician who is very much aware of deafness and the signs of deafness, and she sends families for hearing tests. 

“But at the time when my daughter was born in New York City, they didn’t have newborn hearing screening. So now that’s in place in all 50 states. But sometimes it doesn’t get diagnosed, and parents leave the hospital thinking their child is hearing, and they have to figure that out on their own.” 

Reznik said her film focuses on three key areas: the importance of early detection, medical insurance coverage and rehabilitation. 

“Health insurance in this country is so tricky,” she said. “You really have to be behind the eight ball on it, and sometimes parents don’t have the time or the resources to stick with the issue. For the most part, insurance is covering cochlear implants without trouble (now), but insurance doesn’t necessarily cover hearing aids, although they are more likely to cover hearing aids for children than for adults.”

The movie also emphasizes the importance of connecting with other parents of deaf children, who can offer helpful insights.

The film is set in the mid-1990s when cochlear implants were still fairly new. But controversy still remains about the procedure within the deaf community, which is divided into those who primarily use American Sign Language and those focused on learning speech and integrating into the hearing world. 

“Parents have to decide what is best for their child,” Reznik said. “Parents who are hearing usually want their child to be in the hearing world, so they will probably go the listening and spoken language route. If the hearing loss is 95 decibels or higher, the child would have to get cochlear implants because hearing aids don’t work to hear the speech spectrum. Hearing aids will only make the sounds louder. Somebody with a 95 decibels or higher hearing loss won’t get the high frequencies.”

St. Louis is home to two schools that use the spoken-language approach – the long-established Central Institute for the Deaf (CID) and the newer Moog School – so chances are greater that people here have met someone with a family member who is deaf. 

“I think a lot of families did relocate to St. Louis because of CID, and now there is the Moog School,” Reznik said. “We even thought about relocating to St. Louis for my daughter to go to possibly the Moog School or Central Institute for the Deaf.”

The writer/director grew up in West County and her family belonged to Congregation Shaare Emeth. Although her father, Jerry Reznik, passed away several years ago, the filmmaker still returns to town regularly to visit other family. She and her daughter Miranda would like to attend the screening here, but it is still unclear whether they can.   

“95 Decibels” will be shown before another short film with Jewish interest, “Gefilte Fish,” by former St. Louisan Shayna Cohen, which will also be shown again July 20 as part of the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival’s Bonus Film program at the Jewish Community Center’s Staenberg Family Complex. Find more details at stljewishfilmfestival.org.