Interactive, visual tool helps people with communication needs stay safe in emergency shelters

In Brief

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health created a visual tool for two-way conversations between emergency shelter staff and people with communication needs. The booklet allows shelter staff to ensure residents know how the shelter operates and residents to use images to express their needs and concerns.


During disasters in which evacuation is required or property is damaged, temporary shelters provide people with short-term accommodations, food and other provisions, and sometimes medical or nursing care. Many shelters operate as a system, with rules, procedures, and guidelines designed to maintain order and safety for a large group of displaced people.

Specific issues
  • Communication needs. Navigating a shelter for the first time can be confusing. Shelter residents may not speak or understand English, may have a disability or a non-verbal way of communicating, or otherwise have communication needs that threaten their safety or ability to access necessary services within a shelter.
The practice

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) Emergency Preparedness Bureau developed "Show Me: A Communication Tool for Emergency Shelters," a visual, topic-based tool that allows shelter staff and residents to communicate needs and concerns.

"Show Me" is designed to be an interactive, two-way booklet for communicating needs via image and limited text. The goal of the booklet is to give people with diverse communication needs a hands-on method and multiple means to provide shelter staff with information that can keep them safe and healthy.

Sections in the "Show Me" booklet include visual methods of representing:

  • Language (where users can indicate if they speak a language other than English)
  • Arrival
  • Medical needs
  • I Need... (with options for personal hygiene, assistance, basic needs, and baby needs)
  • Food allergies
  • People and places
  • Feelings and support
  • Time (where visual methods of telling time are displayed)

For example, shelter staff communicating with a new resident can flip to the "Arrival" section and point to an image indicating that the resident must sign in to the shelter. A hungry resident can request a meal by flipping to the "I Need" section and pointing to an image of food.

"Show Me" provides laminated blank pages on which shelter residents or staff can write or draw a message that is not included in the booklet.

What made this practice possible?
  • Extensive partnerships. MDPH consulted and collaborated with public health professionals experienced in staffing emergency shelters, as well as with populations who experience communication challenges during emergencies. These populations included people with cognitive disabilities, people who are deaf or hard of hearing, people with limited English proficiency, and people who experience difficulty with verbal communications.
  • Wide distribution of the tool. MDPH made two copies of "Show Me" available to every city and town in Massachusetts. One copy was sent to the local public health authority, and another was provided to the local emergency management director.
  • Outreach to affected populations. MDPH let community-based organizations, agencies that conduct emergency planning for at-risk populations, and disability services agencies know about the booklet's availability via targeted mailings and outreach.
  • Mobile availability. MDPH is developing a free mobile app version of "Show Me" that can be used on a Smartphone or tablet. Not only is this app expected to be useful in shelters, but it will also be customizable for use in emergency dispensing sites and for door-to-door outreach in the event of a shelter-in-place or evacuation notice.
  • Expanded audience. MDPH is planning to expand the audiences who use the tool to volunteer organizations, mental health workers, and public safety staff.

Find Practices

Newsletter Sign-up

Get CIDRAP news and other free newsletters.

Sign up now»


Unrestricted financial support provided by

Bentson Foundation 3MAccelerate DiagnosticsGilead Become an underwriter»