Hiking, by way of echolocation

It's a big, scary world out there — even more so if you can't see it.

Radically changing this mindset is 27-year-old Los Angeles resident Brian Bushway and the organization he helped launch, World Access for the Blind.

The Southern California-based nonprofit travels the world teaching the blind and visually impaired a technique that it has dubbed Flash Sonar, a method using sound to gauge distances similar to echolocation used by animals, and other life skills for self-sufficiency.

"We're teaching the brain how to image with sound," Bushway said. "Flash Sonar gives someone more awareness and connection to where they are. To the person, it means the freedom to walk or hike wherever they want to go."

In the organization's 10 years of operation, more than 1,000 students in 15 countries have benefitted from World Access's training courses and activities.

With more courage than your average "sighted" person, World Access coaches lead hiking, mountain biking and other adventurous activities — while all being blind themselves.

The only time they slow down is when well-meaning bystanders try, unnecessarily, to guide them back to safety.

"We have to explain to them, 'We got out here this far, didn't we?'" Bushway said. "But, with some people, it doesn't matter what you say."

On Saturday, Bushway will help lead a three-mile hike through Newport Beach's Upper Back Bay and an introduction to Flash Sonar for about 25 people, he said.

Bushway and the other World Access coaches are just as prepared as any other hiker going into the wilderness in terms of having done his research, packing supplies and a compass, and emergency preparation, he said.

Plus, he can "perceive" the trail, even if he can't actually see it.

"When you're hiking, you're paying attention to the different ruts in the road, where the sun is hitting on your face, and for areas like the Back Bay, you can hear the traffic in the distance," Bushway said. "While you have your cane and can feel the sides of the trail, you can use other senses to preview the trail and know if a tree is farther up."

While World Access primarily teaches the technique to the blind, people with no vision impairments are also invited to slip on a blindfold and join the introductory hike to experience the environment through their other senses.

Suki Reed, president of the Orange County Hiking Club, which has partnered with World Access for the weekend event, has helped facilitate similar events in the past for other nonprofits and has done activities blindfolded, she said.

"Its really disorientating and you feel a sense of vertigo," Reed said. "It's challenging, but it's something I suggest that everybody give a try."

World Access commonly faces hesitation from people, and especially young children's parents, who have limited their explorations into the world due to safety concerns.

"A lot of the blind, young and old, get disconnected from the world and it's easy to sit on the couch all day long," Bushway said.

Besides helping develop self-sufficiency in people who've become "perceptually delayed" because of their inactivity, World Access also promotes individual physical health, he added.

And having lost his sight at the age of 14, Bushway knows how hard it can be to take the first step out the front door.

With a great deal of motivation, Bushway re-learned how he "saw" the world and took his first wilderness hike about a year later, he said.

"You go out there and find your own way," Bushway said. "It was incredibly liberating the first time to have this feeling of self-autonomy. Blind people are not always fearful of the same things someone who is not like them may be."

The group will next be organizing a mountain biking event in the Southern California region, with details to be announced as they become available on the group's website, WorldAccessForTheBlind.org.

The events usually attract a good turnout of both those beginning and experienced in perceiving through Flash Sonar, he said.

"It really is a testimony to the adaptability of the human brain and the human spirit."

If You Go

What: World Access for the Blind hike

When: 8 a.m. Saturday

Where: Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center, 2301 University Drive, Newport Beach

Cost: The event is free and open to all members of the public

Information: http://www.worldaccessfortheblind.org

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