July 26 marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the heart of which is made up of two goals: equality and an end to discrimination. It addresses equal access to spaces, information, goods and services, experiences—everything. Removing barriers—physical, technological, communicative, or any other kind—is key. During the pandemic, people with disabilities are being hit hard everywhere, from education to health care, and many institutions have put access on hold as they shift to providing virtual experiences. It is clear that the largest barrier remains one of attitude. Too often, access for people with disabilities is not a priority.
On this milestone anniversary of the ADA I am thinking about a bench. Specifically, a beautiful, one-of-a-kind walnut and hickory bench created by George Nakashima in 1979. At nearly seven feet long, this is a generous object. Its seat is a thick slab sliced from a tree; it spans the bottom of the trunk to the base of two sturdy branches that begin to splay out in the shape of a V. The deep warm tones of the wood welcome and the back—21 graceful, slightly bowed dowels supporting a delicately curved board—promises support. Tucked into a quiet corner of a spacious gallery, the bench harbors. Part of the MFA’s “Please Be Seated” program, which has commissioned public seating from leading contemporary furniture makers for more than 50 years, it’s an artwork designed for human interaction. As such, it offers sanctuary to those who hold tactile experiences at the center of their being and to anyone who needs a place to rest.
Over the years I have witnessed so many people engaging with this bench. I recall a young boy, blind, gently stretching out along the length of the seat, measuring himself against it. A small group of visitors with memory loss once stopped at the bench and sat companionably together, appreciating a moment to take a break at their own inclination. It has been a seat for cancer patients who closed their eyes for a moment’s rest as they gathered strength. I saw a wheelchair user roll along its front, their hand following the rippled edge of the seat, smooth now but holding a tactile memory of the bark that once covered it. This bench continually astonishes with the delight of discovery. From a Deafblind visitor I learned to appreciate the subtle variation in the hand-carved dowels that support the back of the bench. I have been with numerous visitors as they reached down to appreciate one of the tapered legs that hold everything up. Once, after taking my dad to an oncology appointment, we sat on the bench and admired its butterfly joint, the bow tie–shaped patch inlaid in the seat. My dad, himself a woodworker, patted the bench and said, “This tree has good bones.” I have gone to the bench alone many times, to take advantage of a place to think or seek solace during times of grief in the quiet morning hours before the Museum opens.
Fear of contamination has many institutions ready to eliminate all seating and opportunities for tactile engagement, making the experiences I’ve shared unattainable to some. Instead, I’d like us to see the challenges we face during the pandemic as an invitation to think outside the box, build on the good things we have done, and contemplate what it means to move forward with everyone in mind. Everyone. Thirty years is a long time to wait for the delivery of the ADA’s promises. Some have waited even longer for the promises of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For those who experience multiple forms of oppression and discrimination, it must feel like an eternity. So today I imagine a time when I can sit on George Nakashima’s bench again, run my hand along the front (I promise to clean it afterward), and contemplate how amazing it would be if the goals of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act lodged themselves deep in all our hearts, minds, and bones, not to be forgotten, not to be set aside, not to be delayed. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we made sure that everyone who needed it had a spot to rest?