I haven't thought much about this until recently. What makes independence? There are many factors which work together, I think. Perhaps it is some kind of developmental process. If certain things do not happen, this will influence other aspects of the development of independence.
The first factor, obviously, is the ability to move about freely. Whether accomplished with the legs or with a wheelchair, this is the most basic aspect of independence. Without it, there is absolutely no possibility of being independent. At first glance, I would say that I have this one thing, no questions asked. However, taking a closer look, the size of my environment is a deciding factor in how and whether I move through it. I have freedom of movement within the limits of my ability to walk.
However, people who drive a car have a greater freedom of movement. People who have money to take a boat or a plane trip have even greater freedom of movement. Most people can drive a car. I cannot. Although the same movement can be accomplished by taking a bus or cab, this requires two things. The bus or cab must be available (and I must know how to secure this service). Also, more often than not, I must have money. Using a cab for all of one's transportation needs can become very expensive. I have heard this expense compared to the average person's car and insurance payment. I have never figured it up, but the obvious fact is that the more one uses a cab, the greater the expenses will be. With one's own car, freedom of movement is limited only by the gas in the car--and gas is a drop in the bucket compared to a cab ride. It really does not equal out, especially when one is limited to $500 a month in income.
All children are limited by inability to drive. But as children become adults, this limitation is removed. The blind person is left behind. It is fairly obvious that an adult who has become blind would be affected emotionally by the loss of freedom. The blind child who is becoming an adult must deal with an increasing amount of pressure to exercise normal privileges and responsibilities without normal freedom of movement. This lack of freedom results in a curtailment of leisure activities which cannot be done in one's home environment unless one has friends who are willing to pitch in and provide transportation. If I do not participate in community activities because of lack of transportation, I do not develop friendships or relationships with others who may be willing to provide some help in this area.
Freedom of movement is also affected by knowledge of the environment. As a child, there were some things about the environment which I could learn from visual observation. In a building, I might be able to determine where doorways and windows were, how big a room was, etc. Outside, I could determine the location of parked cars, large trees, and other such objects. However, unique aspects of the environment which lead a person to be able to recognize his whereabouts were unavailable to me. Changes in the environment usually presented me with more limitations. Rearranged furniture meant that I had to be reoriented to the location of everything. Having company means that I have to be aware of where new people are sitting--something which is especially difficult if the person is not accustomed to making me aware of his/her whereabouts and tends to move around quietly. These things can make even a familiar environment seem somewhat unfamiliar. How much more true this is with a less familiar environment!
I have said that there are certain aspects of the environment which I can observe. There are other aspects which I must either be shown or told about or discover by interacting with the environment. In a building, I can walk around and note the location of furniture as I encounter it. Outside, I need to be told the names of streets, buildings, etc. Otherwise my knowledge is limited to the fact that I have encountered a street here and a building there. I may be able to identify that a building is a fast food place by the smell of food, but I still must know the name of the place so that I can order the correct food. I can't walk into McDonald's and order a Whopper! I can do this either by walking into the building and asking or by asking a companion. In any case, this assumes that there is someone to ask.
I remember visiting a friend in New York who is also blind. We wanted to go to a pet store. She knew the approximate location. We headed off with our dog guides, rode the subway to the nearest stop, and walked to the appropriate block. Then we realized that we would have to ask someone which store was the pet store. As we were discussing this, her dog turned into a doorway. We didn't figure that she had actually located the store, but I thought it would be fun to go in and explore since there was no one around at the moment to ask. We went in, and I located a display--and found a huge dog biscuit. We had found the pet store! To me, it was the most exhilarating moment I could ever experience--true independence!
Only when I am with other blind people do I have experiences like this. When I am with a sighted person, most often the sighted person automatically takes the lead in explorations. Unless I have a place in mind that I'd like to go, I follow along. My attention is not drawn to displays designed specifically to attract people's attention. I never know they're there unless I come within a few feet of them, notice them, and ask my companion what they are or unless she is attracted to them or thinks I would be attracted to them. I know there is a world out there of which I am unaware. This frustrates me. Perhaps it is why I hate shopping unless I am with certain friends who will truly be my eyes or who are also blind.
I think this is why the vision loss is so upsetting to me. The world of which I can become aware without moving around is becoming smaller and smaller as the fog becomes thicker. I now have to touch things or move within the environment, and these are things I am willing to do but which are limited by other people's fears that I will break something, get lost, get hurt, etc. It is easier to stay in the environment which is familiar to me unless I can arrange opportunities to explore or to be oriented to the wider environment.