Soccer referee Matt Ayyash has come a long way since officiating his first game.
"I was so nervous. I was like, 'Oh my god, OK, I'm going to ref this game and I'm deaf,'" he said during a recent interview with CBC Radio's Information Morning. Mae Smithman, an ASL-English interpreter, facilitated communication in both languages for the interview.
Six years later, the former player with the Canadian Deaf Soccer Team has continued to climb the ranks with Soccer Nova Scotia. He believes he's the only deaf soccer referee working in the province, and in 2016 — his first year — he was named official of the year.
"I was the only deaf person and the first deaf person to really try this, so it was a new experience for everyone," he said.
'Why not give it a go?'
It was during a trip with the team several years ago that Ayyash realized he could turn his passion for the sport into a career.
"I was like, well, it's soccer, but it's also working, so I could combine the two and that would be rather entertaining. Why not give it a go?" he said.
Thanks to Team Work Cooperative, an organization that helps make workplaces more inclusive, Ayyash was able to pay for an interpreter to complete referee training courses.
He started out reffing lower-level matches with young players.
"It was very different for everybody because they're used to the ref just speaking and it going very smoothly," he said.
During his first game, two players joined him for the coin flip and he informed them that he was deaf and would be doing things a bit differently.
"They kind of looked at me completely shocked," Ayyash said. "So I started to gesture and I was like, 'If you want to talk ... you just have to tap me and make sure I'm looking at you so I can lip-read or point.'"
Ayyash has found ways to adapt his officiating, including wearing a device on his arm that buzzes when the other referees on the field want to get his attention quickly.
"I depend on my eyesight a lot, and I make eye contact in order to communicate. I also tend to be closer to the play," he said.
Ayyash said ASL interpreters have also had to learn to interpret referee language, "which is a separate language in itself."
Reffing in the family
In his six years of reffing, Ayyash has moved up the officiating levels, and now referees senior men's and women's rec leagues and youth AAA.
His older brother, Mike Ayyash, is a well-known soccer coach in Nova Scotia, and Ayyash said early in his career he was always referred to as "Mike's brother."
That doesn't happen anymore.
"As a deaf ref, I had to do more work than a hearing ref," he said. "So after several years, people started to recognize me as the deaf ref Matt, rather than Mike's brother."
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