Strangers, both men and women, kept grabbing Dr. Joseph Panzarella Jr.'s head yesterday and kissing him after he received the Handicapped American of the Year award from First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

It was partly from a general jubilance that characterized the annual meeting of the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped - just a week after regulations were signed enforcing the anti-discrimination laws against the handicapped. Many of those who crowded into the Washington-Hilton Hotel in their wheelchairs, or followed the speeches in sign language, had been out on the streets in recent weeks, demonstrating of the White House and the Department of Health Education and Welfare.

But it was also a response to the new way that Dr. Panarella handled the role of super achiever.

The Handicapped American of the Year is traditionally someone who, as Mrs. Carter said yesterday of Panzarella, "does a lot more than most of us who are not handicapped." Completely paralyzed except for his head, he holds three medical teaching positions, two hospital department director-ships and a consultant job.

At a meeting built around the employment problems of the disabled, all those jobs could seem ironic. And the implication could easily be, "See? All you have to do is try, and you can overcome anything".

But while Dr. Fanzarella describes himself as "very positive," it was not what he meant when he said to his admirers, "We shall overcome."

In his acceptance speech, following the First Lady and Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall, he said, "The handicapped group is the most discriminated against among minorities. We must break down the barriers of ignorance and fear, intolerance and indifference. All we disabled want is the chance to compete without further handicaps."

Dr. Panzarella, who is 58, began to suffer from multiple schlerosis before he completed his medical training. Nevertheless, he became an anesthesiologist and was able to work in operating rooms until an automobile accident in 1953. Subsequent surgery, in which he took a calculated risk and lost, left him confined to his wheelchair.

"I decided to change my specialty, and I began to look around for a residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation. I kept getting turned down. One doctor told me, 'Why don't you just live off your war insurance?" Another suggested I could start writing books."

But Dr. Howard A. Rusk at New York University Medical School, took the attitude that "If you can't use the product you're selling, there's no use selling it," and took him for a 2 1/2-year residency.

When he sees patients now, that is literally what he does - he cannot touch them. A nurse handles his stethoscope or other instruments, and he just observes. "I notice how a patient walks, I watch how they undress, how they do things." And he now has a distinguished reputation as a diagnostician.

An attendant takes him to and from work and he says he could never manage if he did not have the full support of his family. (He wife, six children and four grandchildren were with him yesterday; another son was killed some years ago in an automobile accident while rushing to Panzarella's bedside when he was hospitalized).

But, he says, when you add the empathy how can now supply to his patients. "I'm a much better doctor than I was before."