Acquired disability inspires Purdue hospitality alumnus to improve accessibility training in hotels

Written By: Rebecca Hoffa,

Jeremy Warriner, equipped with robotic legs, sits in the doorway of an IU Health life-line helicopter.

On the 10th anniversary of his accident in October 2015, Jeremy Warriner sits in the LifeLine helicopter after being reunited with the crew who helped him in 2005.Photo provided

Purdue University White Lodging-J.W. Marriott, Jr. School of Hospitality and Tourism Management (HTM) alumnus Jeremy Warriner’s dream was to travel the world in the hotel industry. However, in 2005, after many successful years in the industry, a severe car wreck changed his life forever, causing him to lose both of his legs to severe burns.

Today, Warriner has a completely different outlook on the hospitality industry, working as a motivational speaker and accessibility, hospitality management and outreach consultant through his business, Walking Spirit. Through providing assessments and consulting focused on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) through a disability lens, he hopes to transform hospitality experiences for individuals with disabilities.

“There are so many different types of disabilities out there,” Warriner said. “Mine is very visible. I walk on a pair of robotic legs with crutches, or I’m in a wheelchair. I am going to notice the physical things right away. But when working within the hospitality industry, you are dealing with people from all over the world, and there are hidden disabilities, physical disabilities, cognitive disabilities, emotional disabilities — honestly, the person standing behind that front desk is dealing with all of them as they come in the door.”

Warriner began his career in the hotel industry working for Winegardner and Hammons after he graduated from what is now Purdue’s College of Health and Human Sciences in 1997, traveling around the country with the company for nearly five years before returning to Indiana. He then worked for White Lodging on the team that opened the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown.

In 2005, he began his job at the hotel on DePauw University’s campus, leading a major renovation project to update the hotel, including new compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was almost six months after starting this job that a 16-year-old driver pulled out in front of him during his commute home from Greencastle to Indianapolis, sending him crashing into a utility pole. He wound up trapped in his burning Jeep Wrangler for around 20 minutes before he was airlifted to Methodist Hospital. Six weeks after being placed into a medically induced coma, Warriner woke up in the burn unit of what is now the Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Hospital with both legs amputated.

“That created this whole new situation of trying to figure out how to return to the hospitality industry with a severe physical disability, having lost both legs from above the knee, and still adjusting,” Warriner said. “I wanted to get back to work as soon as I could and get back into that renovation before it was done and lead that team, but at the same time, I was learning how to walk on prosthetic legs and learning how to cook from a wheelchair. And how do you take all of that into the hotel industry in a hotel where my office was in the basement and there were two floors that I could not access without being able to go up and down steps?”

Sodexo, the company behind the project at what was then The Walden Inn & Conference Center — now The Inn at DePauw, supported Warriner during the time he was in the hospital and recovering, even asking him to do general manager-level interviews for other properties from his recovery bed to keep him engaged with the company. However, as Warriner returned to the industry, he realized he didn’t have the same empathy he once did for those frustrated with their travel experiences but rather empathized more with individuals with disabilities.

“After about a year of working in the industry, still at that hotel, I decided it was time to do something different,” Warriner said. “Again, the company stood by me and helped me figure that out. They gave me the space and kept me on benefits while I was figuring out: How do I adapt my life with this new disability and still keep the hospitality industry as part of it? I basically created my own public speaking and consulting business.”

Warriner began with motivational speaking within the community, but as he began traveling more, he saw some of the same mistakes repeated throughout hotels that make them less accommodating for individuals with disabilities.

Through the development of Walking Spirit, Warriner is working to change that, focusing on making improvements to both design and training within hotels to make them more accessible to individuals with disabilities. Warriner plans to continue to grow Walking Spirit in the coming years to make it a well-known name in the hospitality industry. Warriner also advocates for higher education settings to incorporate DEI from a disability lens across their curriculum and said he would like to help develop and teach those courses in the future.

Despite his career not going exactly as planned, Warriner said his Purdue experience has remained valuable, from the wealth of hospitality knowledge to the support from faculty — even smaller things, such as the required food and nutrition classes he took, helped him adapt to life after the accident.

“Especially in the first decade there was more communication with HTM professors who were still there from when I was a student, and their support, just simply being able to reach out to them — even today, even though they’re not at Purdue anymore — and talk to them about what I was going through and how to still be engaged in the hospitality industry was big,” Warriner said.

Warriner noted that one of the keys to his success has been waking up every day and deciding that no matter how much pain or frustration comes his way that it’s going to be a good day. He advises hospitality students today to be open to change and willing to adapt — skills that he first began to build at Purdue.

“Purdue is part of the origin story, and you need to be open-minded to adapting to whatever life throws your way,” Warriner said.