Filmmaker, dad finds disability rights cause in plight of lost daughter

By Yixuan Chai

Standing at the corner of Adams and Dearborn, Joey Papa and several friends yell at passersby through a loud speaker — for a reason: To raise awareness of people with special needs.

On this cold Tuesday in February, between educating people walking by the post office about prejudice against those with special needs, Papa gives them something to do about it, too: Take a selfie with him and post to social media with the hashtag #Canaanite, derived from the name of his late daughter, Canaan.

Papa, 36, still mourns the loss of his 3-year-old daughter in October and remembers vividly how people reacted when they saw her wearing an oxygen mask.

He said: “People were hesitant, or fearful, or awkward, or not sure exactly what to say or how to approach us.

“People were hesitant, or fearful, or awkward, or not sure exactly what to say or how to approach us.” — Joey Papa

“But she was just a human, just like the rest of us,” he said.

Papa’s next act? More yelling at sites across the city and making a documentary to honor Canaan as well as raise awareness of children with special needs called “In the Land of Canaan.” The film will feature profiles of five families with special needs children.

“On a social level, I think there is a prejudice or stigma toward people with disabilities. I think that needs to change,” Papa said. “The only way to change that is through each individual recognizing that prejudice actually exists in our minds.”

About 5 percent of school-aged children, about 2.8 million, have a disability, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. In the Chicago area, 3.8 percent of the school-aged children had disabilities, and nearly 11 percent of residents have a disability.

“These children are voiceless,” said Becca Gumm, a friend of Papa, participating in the demonstration. “They don’t even know they’re being looked down with a stigma.”

Francine Bell stopped and took a selfie with Papa because she, too, has a disability.

“Disability can happen to anybody at any time,” Bell said. “It’s very important for programs that support people with disability to stay in place.”

Photo at top: Joey Papa and his friends are demonstrating on the street. (Yixuan Chai/MEDILL)