The mood was so optimistic at the White House Conference on Handicapped Individuals early this week, that executive director Jack F. Smith suggested that sign language users develop a new way of saying "Califano."

Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano, the target of disabled protesters earlier this wespring when he delayed signing anti-discrimination regulations, spoke at the opening of the conference, as he will at its close on Friday. Some people using sign language were forming a "C" with their hands for this name, and then moving the hand downward across the mouth, which means "liar." It was time, Smith was suggesting, to dispense with that sign.

Nevertheless, Smith felt that Califano and President Carter - who took the precaution of requesting a sign language briefing before attending the opening session - were warmly received, especially "compared to what would have happened if it hadn't been signed."

But it was, and there was jubilation at the convention when both President Carter and Califano pledged enforcement of free public education, fair hiring practices and building accessibility for the handicapped in institutions receiving federal money.More than 3,000 people are attending sessions at the Sheraton Park Hotel, which modified 396 rooms and other areas of the hotel to meet their needs.

"The climate is changing," said Peg Edmonds, a rehabilitation worker from Florida who contracted polio "five years before Dr. Salk."

"I see tremendous optimism, more than ever before. We've ready to back off from military and cooperate with the community, and the community at large is getting less defensive at our visibility. They're seeing individuals where they used to see pieces of protoplasm in wheels and metal.

"When someone helps you with your chair now and you say, 'Thank You,' they say, 'Thank YOU,' because they're gratified at the increased awareness they get."

Evelyne Villines, Iowa's commissioner for civil rights and a hospital director, also crippled from childhood polio, feels that the disabled will not have full legal protection until they are added to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

"But this is a turning point in the lives of millions of handicapped people," she said. "We've had champions before, but not ones who really listened to the desires of handicapped people themselves. Time after time, we'd have conferences for handicapped - and less than 3 per cent of the people there would be handicapped.

Smith - also a polio victim - said he felt the emphasis now would be on the education of professional people - such as doctors, teachers and city planners - to the needs of the disabled; accessbility to public information; changing attitudes; and "enforcement of existing legislation, more than a call for new legislation."

He advised a continued "banding together" of the "consumer and advocary organizations" of the disabled, while acknowledging that there is "a great fear among many delegates that it will mean the lumping to gether of all disabilities when everyone's problems are not equal either in terms of severity or solution."

One of those cautioning against "sectarianism" was Liam Macguire, an Irish trade unionist who became a paraplegic after "an argument with a wall from an autobike, which the wall won."

Quoting a paper from a previous internationl conference he had attended on the disabled, he said, "Society is geared to the able-bodied adult male between the ages of 18 and 45 or 50. We're talking about problems which affect all women, all old people, all children - how can a little child reach a door knob way up there? We're talking about 70 per cent of the population."

Problems of disabled women were discussed separately at the convention, where a National Disabled Women's Caucus was formed.

Handicapped women are apt not to be given birth control information "because it's assumed we don't need it," Villines said, and the few sex education films for the disabled which have been made "show disabled men" with able-bodied women.

"We don't have the right to adopt children, and are discouraged from having them," to the point where disabled women are likely to be given abortions without their consent, she said.

"I was told I couldn't have children, when what the doctors really meant was that they thought I shouldn't," said Villines, who has three children and two grandchildren. "I want to talk to other disabled women. I want to be able to tell a pregnant woman how I learned to carry a baby by grabbing one leg and putting the head here and walking with one crutch. I want to assure them they can be good mothers.

"I want to be able to talk to the mothers of handicapped children and assure tham their children will have a better way of life. We're going to have a network, because there are all kinds of problems we need to talk over. For instance - how do disabled women meet men?"

The question was not addressed to Abigail Van Buren, who was a visitor to the conference. In introducing her, director Jack Smith mentioned that Van Buren, who writes the "Dear Abby" advice column, was cornered on the way there "by a girl who wanted to ask advice about her boyfriend."

Someone shouted a question from the audience: "Was she handicapped?"

"We all are," replied Smith.