Is Irish sign languages legislation fit for purpose?

23 February 2023

A conference taking place tomorrow [Fri, Feb 24th] will bring together policy makers, academics, community leaders and civil servants to evaluate if legislation recognising sign languages is fit for purpose.

Titled Sign Languages on the Island of Ireland: Recognition and Human Rights, the conference is hosted by the Royal Irish Academy in conjunction with the Centre for Deaf Studies in Trinity College Dublin and supported by the Irish Deaf Society, the Ulster Society, Bridge Interpreting Ltd., and the SFI ADAPT Centre.

Conference participants will evaluate and benchmark the legislation that exists and identify gaps that remain. They will also consider if this legislation ensures the human rights of deaf people are respected and that they are equally and meaningfully included in society.

Highlights of the conference:

Setting the Scene: Outlining the Act and subsequent implementation measures: Dr John Bosco Conama, Director, Centre for Deaf Studies, Trinity

The challenges and opportunities ahead post-ISL Act, and between the two jurisdictions: Geraldine McGahey, Chief Commissioner, ECNI; & Sinéad Gibney, Chief Commissioner, IHRCE

Opening address: Dr Markku Jokinen, former President, European Union of the Deaf (EUD)

Looking to the future: Machine Translation and Sign Languages – opportunities and limitations: Mark Wheatley, Executive Director, European Union of the Deaf/ SignON project consortium

Access to healthcare: recent developments and remaining barriers: Dr Gill Harold & Dr Noel O’Connell, UCC

From law to implementation — engaging deaf people in political life’: Senator Mark Daly.

Speaking in advance of the event, Dr Mary Canning, President of the Royal Irish Academy, said: “The Irish Sign Language Act has legislated for the position of sign languages in society, and it is up to all of us to ensure it is implemented. I am particularly pleased that, as an all-island body, we will have both ISL and BSL interpreters at our conference on Friday, as well as International Sign.”

Professor Lorraine Leeson, Professor in Deaf Studies at the Centre for Deaf Studies, and Associate Vice Provost for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Trinity, added: “This is such an important event, bringing together key parties from across the island of Ireland, focusing on the  legislative and policy conditions that need to be in place to ensure that parity of esteem, parity of participation and parity of outcome are possible for deaf people, North and South.”

Lianne Quigley, Chair, Irish Deaf Society, said: “I am delighted to see this conference taking place which sees deaf leaders actively engaged in discussion with key policy and academic stakeholders on the topic of sign language recognition and the availability and allocation of resources across the island of Ireland. This is essential for us as we consider what we still need to do to ensure that the promise of the ISL Act can be achieved and recognise the essential contribution that deaf leaders bring to the decision making table. As Chair of the Irish Deaf Society, a DPO that, for many years, lobbied for the implementation of legislation on Irish Sign Language, it is rewarding to see us at this point, but we recognise there is still much work to be done – together.”

Dr John Bosco Conama, Director of the Centre for Deaf Studies at Trinity, said: “It is crucial and timely to have this  conference  address and clarify issues that remain equivocal arising from the review of the Irish Sign Language Act (2017), especially in terms of rights and resource allocation.”

Tommy McAuley, Acting Head of Sign Language Policy and Legislation, Department for Communities in Northern Ireland added: “Uniquely on these islands, Northern Ireland has two sign languages – British Sign Language and Irish Sign Language. The Department for Communities works closely with key stakeholders within the Deaf community and sector – and externally – to promote and develop both languages in order to improve access to services for sign language users. It also supports families with deaf children who choose to use sign language through its fully funded courses. The Department is committed to working with the Deaf community to develop and share its culture and language with wider society.”

One of the contributors to the conference is the SignON project, a European project led by the SFI ADAPT Centre for AI-driven Digital Content Technology, which focuses on the research and development of a Sign Language translation mobile application and framework for video (capturing and understanding sign language), audio and text and translation between signed and spoken languages. The technology aims to provide automatic translation between signed and spoken languages, through an inclusive, human-centric solution enabling communication between Deaf, hard of hearing and hearing individuals. The pan-European consortium includes 16 partners and is led by Professor of Computing at DCU, Andy Way.

Professor Way commented: “All too often these days we hear people – many of whom should know better – saying that language processing and machine translation are ‘solved problems’ because of the relative success of AI models. They are not, even for the world’s ‘major’ languages. As we have clearly demonstrated on one of our other projects, European Language Equality, for all but the top-ten or so languages, data is in massively short supply. For sign languages the situation is much, much worse. It is absolutely the case that all the world’s languages should be respected and supported, whether they have a written form or rely more on speech as a means of communication, or whether they are gestural languages. Projects like our own SignON and EASIER are starting to rebalance things a little in terms of data and technology, although much more needs to be done to allow all our citizens to be able to communicate in their language of choice. This weeks’s extremely prestigious event is a great boost to our efforts, and we are proud and humbled to be represented here today.”