I thank the Cathaoirleach, Senator Mark Daly.
It is important that I start with the right words said in the right way. I have just had my first lesson in sign language and I will not be as good as the Cathaoirleach in the fluency of his delivery but as I look at my notes, I will try my best. To people watching I encourage everybody to try to learn a few words in sign language. It has been a very enriching experience. I am delighted to be here today to talk to the House on this very important occasion and I am proud to speak a few words in the Irish Sign Language, ISL, which is one of Ireland 's unique, native and recognised languages. This is something to be celebrated.
We are approaching the third anniversary of the passing of the Irish Sign Language Act, which we will shortly commence. The commencement of the Act is a milestone moment for the sign language population for whom this is among the most important legislation ever passed in this country. However, each and every one us should share in celebrating this moment. At the end of this most difficult year, we have here the opportunity to recognise, celebrate and commit to support our unique, native and independent language. It is my pleasure to confirm to the House that a commencement order is being finalised and this will commence the Act on 23 December. I will, therefore, take this opportunity to give a brief overview of the progress in the key areas of the Act.
I acknowledge all those who worked and called for the realisation of this Act. This has been so important in the journey to its commencement. Unfortunately, time does not allow me to go through the long list.
As the House will be aware, the Act places an obligation on public bodies to do all that is reasonable to ensure that they provide ISL users with free interpretation when availing of or seeking to access statutory entitlements and services. Secretaries General are being reminded of this fact and encouraged to remind their staff and the agencies for which they are responsible of this. The fulfilling of this duty will require that there are a sufficient numbers of accredited interpreters available. The Department of Social Protection, working with the Citizen's Information Board and the Sign Language Interpreting Service, has taken steps to ensure that this becomes a reality.
A company has been established to maintain a register of Irish Sign Language interpreters and to develop a quality assurance scheme which will strengthen and guarantee the quality of ISL provision. The Department of Social Protection is piloting an app which will allow access to interpreters via phones and other devices. This is an exciting opportunity and I look forward to seeing it work for ISL users so that it can be expanded as part of our suite of options for them. The Department is also responsible for a voucher scheme which will allow ISL users to book and avail of interpreters to ensure that they have access to them when participating in cultural, social and educational events. This is key to removing barriers that deaf people experience in engaging in their community and in enjoying access to the arts and other important activities. The voucher scheme is well advanced but Covid-19 has impacted its readiness. However, I also understand that this will be realised over the course of 2021.
Equal access to justice is key to our society. For many years, our courts have arranged and paid for sign language interpreters where required in family and criminal law cases. For civil proceedings, the protocol has been that litigants cover the cost of interpretation themselves. The legislation provides that this practice in family and criminal proceedings becomes an obligation for the State. As a result, the Courts Service will be required to arrange and bear the cost of ISL interpretation in civil proceedings. The Courts Service is committed to implementing this responsibility.
In the education of our young ISL users and their families, the Department of Education and the National Council for Special Education are ensuring that there is an ISL tuition scheme available to families and that dedicated visiting teachers support the work of class teachers. For our teachers, Dublin City University has an ISL bachelor of education course that enables deaf and hard of hearing people who use ISL to enter primary teaching. This is a significant step towards ensuring access and inclusion for all in the classroom.
I take this opportunity to thank the ISL interpreters who have supported the Department of Health's nightly briefings on Covid-19. They are a crucial part of the communication of key public policy health messages and confirm, once again, the Act's importance.
Realising the transformation envisaged in the Act will take time. I celebrate the progress made but I recognise that there is more to be done. As the person now charged with the duties as Minister of State with responsibility for disability matters, I emphasise my commitment to ensuring that the Act is fully implemented as soon as possible. I believe strongly in the goal of ISL users to participate fully in Irish society, as is their right.