Most people take basic literacy skills such as reading and writing for granted but Bury-born Owain Williams never will.
Ranked the best in England at Shito-ryu karate in the 11-12 age category, few would assume that the confident boy in front of them would struggle to read a book without the help of some blue-tinted glasses.
Williams has a condition called Irlen syndrome and his brain struggles to process visual information correctly.
In mild forms the condition can result in an inability to focus on written text, poor comprehension and eye strain but in more serious forms can consist of headaches, low self-esteem and in some cases, poor sports performance.
“With Irlen syndrome it affects the way that you read and sometimes the way you think,” Williams explained.
“For example, when you are reading a piece of paper you will read the line above where you want to or the same line repeatedly.
“Most of the time I see rivers through the words and I get locked onto one word and read it over and over again.”
Williams had completed 2-and-a-half years of primary school before he was first diagnosed.
The condition certainly had a detrimental effect on his confidence because he couldn’t understand why he was not able to read at the same level as his peers.
“Sometimes I got angry with myself, I was just reading the same line over and over again,” Williams said.
“It made me feel a lot better when I was diagnosed with Irlen’s because I had a reason as to why I was struggling.
“I blamed myself, I thought it was a problem with me but then I knew I wasn’t alone in struggling with it.”
As a result of his diagnosis, Williams found that he was able to read better if he had a blue filter over his eyes because it helped his brain to process the information it received more efficiently.
On his blue glasses, he said: “After the test said I had Irlen’s in Year 2 of primary school, that’s when I got my blue glasses that help me read.
“Before I got my glasses, a temporary fix was that I used special coloured paper, instead of white and black lines it had blue lines.
“I also had a plastic overlay which was dark blue and it had the effect of refocusing my vision. I could read a book instantly. It straightened out the lines.
“I was still embarrassed when I first got the glasses because who has blue glasses? Now, I think they are cool.”
At the same time as he was struggling in school, he was excelling out of it.
Williams took up football, rugby and karate and thinks that he used sport as a coping mechanism for his condition, saying: “Play sport definitely helped me through it.
“I knew I wasn’t the smartest person when it came to school but when I started doing sport I was really interested in it because it played to my strengths.
“There was no reading but I was still learning.
“I wasn’t distracted by words, I could get on with sport and it helped that I could focus on that instead of what was going on in the class room.”
He started attending the United Styles Karate Academy in Bury when he was four and managed to become the best in England for his age by eleven.
Williams has obtained nine belts in eight years of training and his next assessment will be for the renowned and much sought-after black belt.
“It is the competitive side of karate I like and the fact I could improve and it is goal driven sport,” said Williams.
“I love how learning and developing my technique will help me climb up the belts system.
“When I was young I was already goal-oriented so I really picked it up quickly. That sounds odd but even in reception I was already aiming for the black belt.”
The Bury-born fighter has dozens of competitions under his belt and has performed at local, regional, national and international levels, representing club and country.
He takes his fights point by point with the minimum expectation that he wins just one in a match.
“I started at Bury comps and then my coach, after seeing how I fought, put me forward for the bigger regional comps and I won gold for my club,” he recalled.
“I then went to a big European event in Sheffield and that was a great experience. I lost my fight but the person who I lost to won the entire competition.
“My aim is to at least score one point. My standards a low and then I try and set higher ones, first point out the way, ok now I want another. Then before I know it I have won the fight.”
He was first selected by Karate’s main governing body the Amateur Martial Association to represent England in 2013 aged eight.
Williams recalled his competition experience: “I went into the national championships and I started winning gold, silver and bronze medals.
“I then entered the English Open. When I started winning them I got into the AMA national squad.
“I started going to the European Championships, then the World’s and I have won fights in those. It made me want to win more and more.
Being England’s number one is something Williams wants to live up to and he has set his sights very high.
The 12-year-old wants to have a long and successful career in karate and is aiming to be a World and Olympic champion when he retires.
“I want to be a World Champion,” he said.
“In the European’s I was so close to picking up a medal that I was just unfortunate.
“I hope to go to the Olympics in the end but that will be in 2024. I want to build my reputation and pick up as many belts as I can before then.”
The gym that Williams trains at is run by the Vice-President of the Amateur Martial Association who is called Peter Allen.
Allen has had a 45-year career in karate, competing himself and then moving into coaching, training the next generation of fighters.
He estimates he has trained over 1000 people since opening his karate club in 1983 and believes that he will provide Williams with the platform for success in his career, saying: “He is training within an elite structure that has been tested by many students over the years.
“We identified Owain as having potential and he could go all the way to World Champion if he sets his sights high enough.
“I have been responsible for eight world champions and currently we have two training with us at my club but I see Owain as the best to come through recently.”
Although he believes no one should be treated any differently because of a disability or health condition, Allen has been impressed by Williams’ ability to overcome Irlen syndrome.
“They get there on their own merits but because he has got some sort of medical condition, it enlightens the fact that he is performing so well.
“It is a tougher test for him and he is a stand out performer, hopefully he can be a role model to people with Irlen syndrome in the future.”