Disability rights lawyer-activist extraordinaire dies, aged 30

Defeat was not an option to young lawyer James Low who raised the bar high to achieve success. (Facebook pic)

PETALING JAYA: Constitutional law scholar and disability rights activist James Low Hong Ping who died too young on Wednesday from a rare genetic muscle-wasting disease lived the dream.

James was only 30, but he was a tenacious achiever whose industry was exemplary and unremitting, said his law lecturers and fellow lawyers.

They said with his illness, James gave everyone a lesson in strength, caring and societal challenges.

Growing up, James couldn’t walk, struggled to write and suffered constant fatigue. He withstood the painful start to his life.

As a lawyer, James focused on how disability rights were bound by deficiencies in law and sought to transcend the legal shortfalls.

As an activist, he strove to change society’s perception toward persons with disabilities.

Associate Professor Azmi Sharom, his law lecturer at University of Malaya (UM), said James was an exceptional student – “bright, inquisitive, and most importantly interested in the law.”

“He was well liked and respected by all the lecturers in the faculty because of these qualities,” said Azmi, currently deputy chairman of the Election Commission of Malaysia.

“It cannot be denied that he showed tremendous resolve and determination because of his condition, but when I think of James, that is not what comes to mind.

“What does come to mind is a delightful student and colleague whose sheer grit was an inspiration.

“The love and dedication displayed by his family and nurse, were also inspirational,” said Azmi.

Azmi said James had enriched the Law Faculty enormously when he taught there and was part of its constitutional law initiatives.

Azmi said he enjoyed teaching James who “questioned me and had a great sense of humour which showed in his writings.”

Poignant stories about James’s resilience leaves one enthusing about the untiring spirit of this young man who knew no limits.

They are accounts of his zest for life, the heartrending way in which he battled his illness, his zeal for law and disability rights, and, above all, the love he had for his family.

James was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a disease that robs people of physical strength by affecting the motor nerve cells in the spinal cord.

It took away his ability to walk. He had to be carried around by his contractor father, Low Eng Eow and his housewife mother, Cheong Yee Yee, both 64.

When he was five, he underwent acupuncture sessions thrice a week. James cried each time he went.

After five years, his parents felt hopeless over the lack of progress to his condition and stopped the therapy.

He could not use an electric wheelchair because he was unable to control it. All his daily routines were aided by his parents.

In school and later in UM, all in Kuala Lumpur, he had to cope with his failing ability to write and use the computer.

Toward the end of primary school at SK Taman Maluri the muscle strength of his left hand weakened.

In secondary school at SMK Seri Bintang Utara and Form 6 at St John’s Institution, his writing speed deteriorated even as class work piled up.

He was reduced to dictating his homework to his older sister, Suk May, now 33, who helped him type.

At 15, he switched to an on-screen keyboard that allowed him to use a mouse to click on the control panel.

As a second-year law student, a lecturer introduced him to dictation software when he could not click the letters quick enough.

He also had to fight fatigue and physical tiredness while doing coursework.

Despite the physical challenges he faced, he remained highly motivated in his pursuit of success.

He aced UM law school, got an LLM (Master of Laws) from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and was in the midst of his PhD.

Deputy chair of the Malaysian Bar Council Constitutional Law Committee, Lim Wei Jiet, said of his fellow panel member: “James was also a gifted constitutional law scholar and a relentless disability rights activist.

“The public law field, academia and disability rights front has lost a brilliant advocate.

“His very presence, more so his tenacity, inspired many of us,” Lim tweeted.

Jaclyn Neo, a constitutional law professor at NUS, noted in a Facebook posting that James completed his LLM in International and Comparative Law at NUS Law in 2017 and enrolled in the PhD programme in 2019.

She said he received numerous awards and scholarships including the NUS President’s Graduate Fellowship and the NUS Graduate Scholarship for Asean nationals.

Professor Damian Chalmers, Vice Dean of Research at NUS, described James as “an inspiration not simply for how he addressed life and showed what was possible, but also for the humanity he displayed and offered to others”.

In an interview with a newspaper in 2017, James attributed the secret of his success to “God’s grace, the love of my family, the guidance of my teachers and help from my friends.”

James, who was the co-chair of Law Reform Group at the Harapan OKU (coalition of Malaysian disability NGOs), had advised others with disabilities to have “faith, hope and love”.

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