With new restrictions coming back into play today across the nation, it feels like we are retreating back into lockdown. However, we shouldn’t let this get us down, because one positive to come out of lockdown has been the creation of many supportive online communities that have been rallying to connect disabled people throughout periods of isolation. One particularly successful venture has been the virtual pub started by Dr Amy Kavanagh, The Staying Inn. We spoke to Amy to find out how it all began…

The Staying Inn

Dr Amy Kavanagh

Where did the idea for The Staying Inn come from?
It started as a bit of a joke, I put up a sign, a pack of beers, and some games on my dining table for when I had video calls with friends and family. This included a disability campaigners whatsapp group, and everyone kept joking about “when will you open the pub?” so I did! The pub is really inspired by the online community spaces disabled people have been creating for years, in real life so much is inaccessible to us, so an online pub seemed like the perfect lockdown solution.

When did you officially start it?
21 March, it was chaos! I foolishly posted the Zoom link online and we had a lot of trolls turn up! Now we have a newsletter so it’s all safe.

What did you hope The Staying Inn would do for the disabled community?
COVID-19 has been such a difficult time for so many people in the disabled community, especially people who are shielding. I just wanted to create a positive friendly space for people to have fun and feel included. I wanted the pub to be a space for anyone who was feeling lonely, something they could come along to and feel amongst friends who understood their experiences.

Now The Staying Inn is so much more than just a friendly online chat, it’s a thriving community, it’s providing opportunities for disabled people to share their creativity and activism, for people to build confidence, find friendships and learn new skills. Our events have something for everyone, from our popular quiz night, to the stitch and bitch craft group, book club, disability campaigning workshops, dance parties or funny games! Whether it’s a laugh or a lesson we have something for you, and some of our previous popular sessions are available on the catch up section of our website.

What has the feedback been like?
The feedback has been really positive. Especially at the start we had a lot of people who were very isolated during lockdown and the pub was the only time they talked to people that day or that week. We have such a wonderful growing community of regulars who really support each other and are becoming friends, it’s lovely.

Quotes from our recent feedback survey:

“It’s been an essential part of my wellbeing during lockdown.”

“The Staying Inn has been a breath of real life in my very closed world.”

“Has really helped to get me through this time knowing others are in a similar position and to have somewhere that is a safe space for us to relax.”

“Honestly I’ve never seen a community event with such good deaf access (captions and BSL) and a culture of constantly striving to meet people’s needs and balancing inevitable needs-conflicts in a thoughtful way.”

“I absolutely love it so much. It’s made me realise I love socialising, it’s just the energy needed to get out there that I lack, so by the time I get there I’m knackered and I hate it! Being able to just socialise as I am, in my own home, is amazing for me. And being able to get involved and help with hosting has been amazing for my confidence; it’s rare I have the physical ability to help so to be able to is lovely for me.”

Are you hoping to keep the virtual pub going beyond the lifting of lockdown?
I will keep it running as long as we have the funds to run sessions. We recognise that as ‘the new normal’ starts people might want something different, but based on our recent feedback there is still a really big appetite for regular sessions. We hope that The Staying Inn becomes a real model for digital inclusivity and tackling social isolation that other organisations might adopt. I think it can be a positive outcome of this pandemic that digital spaces are finally recognised for the value they have in connecting people and creating change, but that also it’s so important that they are accessible and inclusive.

You must be proud of the success of this online community – what makes you happiest or most proud as the landlady of The Staying Inn?
It’s very cool being an online landlady, I really do enjoy it, even though it’s a lot of work! At least I don’t have to clean the loos.

I think the event that made me most proud was our Pride event, it was a disabled and LBGTQ+ inclusive quiz, we did all sorts of trivia about Queer culture. So many people were so happy to be there, sharing their stories, excited to be in a space that recognised their needs, as well as celebrating their identity and uplifting them as part of a community, it was so beautiful and positive. Everyone was so supportive of each other, encouraging people who were new to their LGBTQ+ identity or to their disability, people felt accepted and part of something lovely. I cried afterwards.

I’m always deeply moved by the lovely messages I get after events about how the pub and the people have cheered someone up, encouraged them to try something new or just made them smile for the first time in a while.

Often my activism has been about challenges or exclusions I face as a disabled person. So it’s been really joyful to be part of something empowering and positive, especially during such a difficult time. I just want it to keep going as long as possible!

How can people get involved and attend?
It’s easy, just sign up to our newsletter. You’ll get a weekly email telling you about all our events, and a reminder before each session with the event information. Visit thestayinginn.org.uk to sign up.

How can people and organisations support or donate to help keep The Staying Inn going?
We are desperate for funds! Each session including live captions and British Sign Language interpreters, plus paying a disabled host costs around £400. We’d happily welcome sponsorships from organisations or businesses relevant to the people we support at The Staying Inn, but most of all we need longer term funding like grants. It’s proving really tricky to get grants as a new online initiative during COVID-19 even though we are addressing a really important issue around social isolation for disabled people. So any support or advice is welcome!

We’re also always looking for fun activities and interesting workshops. So if you can offer a wellbeing or exercise session, something creative or share your skills we’d love to have you along to the pub!

People can reach us at thestayinginn@gmail.com.

We have a go fund me page where people can donate at gofundme.com/f/staying-inn-fund and we also have a PayPal pool paypal.me/thestayinginn.

Article originally appeared in the Aug/Sept 20 issue of PosAbility Magazine

Get your copy of PosAbility Magazine

Read more articles here