Flexible Web. Clear the clutter, harness the power


Have you ever been frustrated by all the clutter you’re confronted with on web pages? The web seems to offer so much promise. You know the material you want is there somewhere, but it can be difficult sometimes to find that gold nugget of information you’re after. You know that if you could see the screen, you’d find it at a glance.

We totally relate, and this post is for you.

In our last blog post, we made brief mention of a technology unique to JAWS called Flexible Web. As a JAWS user myself, it’s a feature I use daily. It’s one of those many features that make JAWS stand out as the choice for those who value productivity and efficiency.

It’s also a feature that demonstrates the value of the virtual buffer approach we’ve fine-tuned over the years.

If you’ve not used Flexible Web before, understanding what it is and why it’s useful could change for the better the way you use the web.

What is Flexible Web?

When a sighted person looks at a web page, their attention might be drawn to key areas of that page using various visual tools. With a quick glance, they can see where the large blocks of text are, so on a news site, their eyes wander straight to the article intuitively. Other key parts of the site might use a distinct color, font or point size for emphasis.

There might be ads on the screen and buttons for sharing the page to social networks. If they’re of no interest to the sighted user, it’s a quick visual process to skip them.

The challenge we sought to overcome when developing Flexible Web was to provide tools that made the web more efficient, in a way that gave blind users the sort of advantages discussed above.

Our goal with everything we do in JAWS is maximum productivity and efficiency. Using tools like place markers and navigation quick keys, JAWS makes it easy to get to the parts of the page you want, assuming the developer of the page has done their part by designing it in an optimal, accessible way.

But even on a fully accessible page, you might want to stop JAWS from showing you certain types of content. Wouldn’t it be great if you could hide those ads that slow down your navigation, or interrupt the flow of a news article you’re reading?

Tired of that box containing related links? Make it vanish.

If you never use the share buttons for Facebook, Twitter and other networks, it would sure make the page less verbose if JAWS simply didn’t speak them at all.

Or my personal favorite, web-based forums. I am a member of an online community for IT professionals and technology enthusiasts in New Zealand. They operate a series of web-based forums, from which I glean a lot of useful information. Before Flexible Web came to JAWS, using those forums was a time-consuming process, because of all the quoting. Once a discussion topic had been going for a while, the topic would be full of quotes several levels deep before you finally got to the text of the reply. With Flexible Web, I can hide all those nested quotes. It’s like they’re not even on the page, yet I know that should I wish to see them, I can toggle Flexible Web off, and they’ll appear again. Flexible Web makes me more inclined to use the site and to participate in that community, which is what JAWS is all about.

Flexible Web also aims to do what a sighted person does intuitively, start at the part of a page that contains meaningful content. When you get to know the way a sight is structured, you can instruct Flexible Web, as soon as a page loads, to place the virtual cursor right where you want to begin navigating or reading, such as the second heading level 2 on the page. yes, it can be that precise.

Which browsers support Flexible Web?

Flexible Web is available in Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Firefox. Note that as discussed in our previous blog post, we recommend that you use the Firefox Extended Support Release for now.

How do you use Flexible Web?

When you’re on a site you want to customize, use the Flexible Web wizard by pressing the JAWS Key with Space, followed by X. You can also press the JAWS Key+F2 to open the Run JAWS Manager dialog box, then choose Flexible Web.

Through several easy-to-follow steps, The Flexible Web wizard provides you with two options: hide, or start reading at the selected element. The wizard then guides you through creating a temporary customization by giving you various choices about the selected element and how you want to hide it or from where exactly to start reading. Once you’ve made the customization, it is immediately applied to the page.

If you’re unhappy with how a customization is working, you can open the Flexible Web wizard to undo the last customization you made. When you return to the page, you can choose a different element or the same one, then reactivate the Flexible Web wizard to retry the customization again perhaps with different criteria. For example, in the case of hiding those advertisement frames mentioned earlier, you probably want to hide all of them, not just the first one on the page. The wizard will provide you with choices about whether to hide just the first one or all of them.

Sometimes, you’ll need to experiment a little to get the page working optimally. It’s worth the persistence, because once you have things set up exactly as you like them, the site will be far more pleasant and efficient to use. Feel free to try things out, there’s nothing you can break, and nothing that can’t be undone.

Once you have created one or more customizations, you can save them as a rule, which is applied every time you load the particular page or site. To indicate that a rule has been applied to a page, JAWS plays a sound after the page loads. Rules can be applied to the current web page, entire website, or globally for all websites. Otherwise, customizations are only temporary and are lost as soon as you navigate away from the current web page or close the browser. If you’ve made temporary customizations and you attempt to navigate to another page or close the browser, a dialog box opens asking if you want to save your customizations as a rule.

More information

If these things make more sense to you in audio, listen to a demonstration of Flexible Web in FSCast 70.

There’s also comprehensive information about Flexible Web right in the JAWS help system.

Give Flexible Web a try if you’ve not done so already. It makes the web a more friendly and efficient place.



  1. Jim Pursley

    I find the blog posts a time saver and an efficiency enhancer. I probably use only a small portion of the JAWS features which may be useful to me, but still I am somewhat efficient. Imagine what I could do if I spent more time with JAWS instead of treating it like a rusty old car. Cheers.

  2. Deborah Armstrong

    Clearly written article that makes flexible web easy to grasp. I have used the feature since it came out and miss it ever so much when I have to work with a different screen reader. Flexible Web also integrates well with Braille, making it possible to turn off speech — in a noisy environment or during a class or meeting, and still look things up online with efficiency.

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