Ernie Els, a former world No 1 golfer, yesterday unveiled plans for a hotel group that will have facilities to cater to autistic children and offer employment opportunities for autistic adults.
First & Foremost, which hopes to open its first five-star property in Dubai towards the end of 2017 or early 2018, has partnered with the Leading Family Hotels group that runs 56 hotels in Europe.
Els is the father of an autistic 13-year-old boy, Ben.
“This is a business venture first and a philanthropic venture second,” said Els, an investor into First & Foremost Family Hotels. “Our partner has 56 hotels which cater to up to five-year-olds and above in an exceptional manner and we saw an opportunity here for that level of attention. I saw the opportunity for enabling the autistic community with employment opportunities and we will have a couple of rooms in every hotel that are fitted out to meet the needs of anyone on the autistic spectrum.”
The hotel will highlight the condition in the UAE and give much-needed opportunities for high-functioning children.
According to information from the website of Autism Speaks, a leading autism research and advocacy organisation in the US, the condition is characterised, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication and repetitive behaviours. It can range from mild and manageable to far more severe cases.
The UAE has autism centres in Abu Dhabi and Dubai with the capital building a new facility that can cater to 150 children with physical disabilities and those on the autistic spectrum.
“I think this is a wonderful idea for those children and adults who are able to fit into the hotel community,” said Aysha Al Mansouri, the director of Abu Dhabi Autism Centre.
“One of the hardest parts of our jobs is finding work for the kids that have graduated from high school, there is nowhere for them to go in the UAE.
“We have 67 kids in our centre and another 26 in local schools. We have been looking for jobs that will allow them to photocopy or carry out more menial tasks but there are very few opportunities.”
The Abu Dhabi Autism Centre has a vocational department that teaches the children and recent high school graduates about the work environment and how to complete work-related tasks. However, this is as close to actual work that most of them will experience.
It is hoped the hotel can bring a level of attention and connection between social and commercial sectors spotlighting the need for opportunities.
“This is definitely a first for the UAE and I’ve not heard of anything similar anywhere else,” said Matthew Green, the head of research and consultancy at CBRE.
“Anything that improves people’s lives is a good thing but an honest celebrity endorsement from Ernie Els will bring major attention to the issues.”
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