AMERICA'S HANDICAPPED citizens are moving out of the shadows and into the world tourism picture.

"We care a great deal about the problems faced by handicapped travelers," declares Brock Adams, secretary of transportation. "Throughout the country old transportation systems are being modified and new ones are being designed to make travel accessible to the handicapped and elderly.

"Airports such as Washington National and Dulles International, for example, have increased parking spaces, provided wheelchairs, improved rest-room facilities and installed special equipment such as amplified telephones to assist them.

"And on June 8, 1978, the Department of Transportation published in the Federal Register a proposal setting forth standards and timetables for making all modes ot transportation more accessible to persons with handicaps."

Transportation and the handicapped are news today."Mainstreaming", "barrier-free", "mobility" are terms that crop up daily in newspaper, on television and in the vocabularly of many able-bodied persons. Ramps are appearing next to steps, street curbs are being cut out at corners, elevator buttons and public telephones are being set four feet from the floor.

What happened?

Call it a new civil-rights movement.

After years of struggle and frustration behind the scenes, handicapped Americans emerged in the 1960s as a vocal, militant minority asserting their right to share in the normal pleasures and aspirations of life to the fullest extent of their capabilities. It was the hard work of handicapped people themselves and of their organizations that led to the enactment of the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and its improvements in 1976 and 1978, and the establishment of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board in 1973. The United States in now moving in the direction of integrating its handicapped population into the mainstream of public facilities and activities.

As frequently happens when a minority begins to assert itself, the complacent majority has been caught unaware. "What do they want?" "So many things are done for them."They're happiest with their own kind." "They really can't cope." "What do they want ?"

And on the other side there are shoulders carrying a lot of chips. "They don't understand us." "The only reason I didn't get the job was because of my handicap." "They don't like to look at us." "We're entitled to our demands because we"ve been discriminated against for so long."

Thus emotions grow heated over such issues as whether blind travelers should be allowed to retain their long canes aboard aircraft. The airlines say they're dangerous because they could act as projectiles in a cabin, become wedged in an aisle or exit, or puncture an emergency evacuation chute. The American Foundation for the Blind says its members won't relinquish their canes in flight and has staged a demonstration over the issue against United Air lines - historically the first air carrier to accept Seeing eye dogs in passenger compartments. On the other hand, the American Council of the Blind says it's all nonsense and orders its priorities differently.

In recent years air travel by the handicapped has become a major focal point. At one time it was easy for the airlines to decide what sort of person could readily be accepted. The rule of thumb was that anyone able to walk a city block, climb a flight of stairs, and look, act and smell normal would be accepted for flight.

That was before World War II, when not many people flew anyway and very few handicapped even thought of doing so. But as disabled veterans returned from the war and air transportation began to grow in importance, the issue of travel for healthy, non-ambulatory or otherwise handicapped people emerged as a problem which still has not been resolved.

From 1938, when United Airlines ruled that Buddy, a German shepherd, could accompany his master, Morris Frank, of The Seeing Eye, in the passenger compartment of a plane, to the first post-war flights by paraplegic basketball teams, to the recent development of TWA's Handicapped-Lift (a mobile elevator unit for boarding in the absence of a jetway that is now in use at 10 U.S. airports), progress in eliminating barriers to air travel by the handicapped has been painfully slow.

Since there are federal regulations specifically governing the transportation of handicapped people-by air or any other means-the individual airlines have, over the years, established their own criteria in conformity with a provision of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 that permits the airlines to deny passage to anyone whose presence might be "inimical" to flight safety. This is the provision that lets the captain throw an obnoxious drunk off the plane, to no one's great distress.

But it has led to what many handicapped people consider callous or at least thoughtless treatment.

In addition to the regulation about the long canes used by some blind people (dog guides are almost universally accepted, subject only to quarantine regulations), there are three restrictions on handicapped travelers-of which none or all may be applied, depending on an airline's individual policy:

A medical certificate attesting to the person's health and ability to travel by air may be requested.

A quota may be set on the number of wheelchairs allowed on any flight based on the size of the aircraft, number of exits and number of flight attendants.

A companion or attendant may be required to accompany a handicapped passenger.

In May 1977, every American carrier submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration a statement of its policy for transportation of handicapped passengers, based in great part upon the FAA's guidelines on the subject developed after safety research and public hearings.

As the situation now stands, an airline cannot refuse to carry a handicapped apssenger unless (1) the passenger fails to cpmply with the carrier's stated procedures or (2) the passenger cannot be carried in accordance with those procedures.

These rules only apply to domestic carriers; foreign flag carriers are not bound by them.

Obviously, it's up to the propsective traveler to check on the regulations of the airline he intends to use. He should also remember to check with railroads and bus lines as well for, while they may be less restrictive than airlines, they also have individual procedures that must be complied with.

Whether all public transportation can be made accessible, as the Department of Transportation has proposed, is a moot point. Its own estimate of 30 years and $1 billion for retrofitting (one-third of that for the New York City subway system alone) may not arouse enthusiasm in anyone who has encountered the new and expensive "kneeling" buses that are permanently out of order and refuse to genuflect for disabled and able-bodied alike. Nonetheless, the DOT is requiring that all standard-sized buses bought with federal funds and put out for bid after Sept. 30, 1979, must inculde the kneeling feature as well as ramps for boarding and exiting.

The Washington Transportation Allfance, a non-profit organization formed in 1975, has taken an eclectic approach toward examining and providing transportation for the handicapped and elderly in the metro area. It has been involved in carpool and taxicab demonstration projects as well as in co-ordinating the use of special vehicles with various community organizations. Their findings (three pamphlets have just been published and three additional pamphlets will be issued within six months) may well provide guidelines for other large cities attempting to improve transportation services for the handicapped without waiting for the millennium of perfect accessibility to arrive.

But while getting around his home town may present the handicapped person with difficulties, vacation travel is becoming more and more feasible as interesting new tour possibilities open up.

Travel agents are beginning to show an interest in serving handicapped travelers, a move that is warmly applauded by the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). According to its president and chairman of the board, Joseph R. Stone, "The travel agent's professional expertise and advice can do a great deal to assuage the handicapped person's fears about travel. ASTA is no considering a variety of educational approaches that will train our 8,600 U.S. travel agency members to serve this newly developing market of clients."

Speaking to 150 delegates at the recent convention of the Society ofor the Advancement of Travel for the Handicapped (an organization of interested travel agents and tour operators) in Florence, Italy, Arnold Light, a New York tour operator, advised agents to open their eyes to the needs of the handicapped.

"There is a potential market of 16 million handicapped travelers and their friends and relatives," he said, "plus another 4 million elderly. Agents could increase their business 10 percent a year by actively seeking out htis market."

There is a limited number of tour operators that package trips for handicapped travelers, but their tours can be booked thourgh local travel agents. A good travel agent can be the handicapped traveler's best friend if he is willing to take the time and trouble to check on crucial points accessibility throughout the client's trip. The handicapped client, for his or her part, must be sure to be honest with the agent and very specific about needs.

It is now possible for people with handicaps ranging from minor to quite severe not only to travel to popular destinations in the United States and Europe, but to go to the Middle East and the Orient, to go river kayaking and even skiing.

The fillowing tour operators have programs available throughout 1979:

Ability Tours, Inc. 729 Delaware Ave. SW, Washington, D.C. 20004. (202) 554-9104. Travel opportunities for the handicapped, elderly and others requiring specialized arrangements. A Washington. D.C.-Williamsburg, Va., package tour is now available weekly, and a travel/study program to London, England, for teens and adult handicapped will be offered this summer. Future plans include winter sports packages.

Evergreen Travel Service, 19429 Forty-fourth Ave. W., Lynnwood, Wash. 98036. (206) 776-1184. "Wings on Wheels" tours for the blind, deaf and wheelchair-bound are glamorous and expensive: around the world in 21 days, three weeks at a Romaian health spa, a fly-cruise combination from San Francisco to Indonesia. Able-bodied friends and relatives welcome. Elderly non-handicapped also like these tours because of leisurely pace.

Encino Travel Service, Inc., 16660 Venture Blvd., Encino, Calif. 91436. (213) 788-4118. Ours for the deaf to Hawaii, Mexico, India, the Orient and other areas include a tour conductor who is also an interpreter for the deaf. TTY (teletype for the deaf) number is (213) 788-4515.

Flying Wheels Tours, 143 West Bridge, Box 382, Owatonna, Minn. 55060. (507) 451-5005. Owned by a quadriplegic, operates group tours to domestic and foreign destinations.Can also make individual arrangements and organize bus tours.

Forlow Tours, c/o Jim Rawls, 1045 North Azusa, Covina, Calif. 91722. (213) 332-2474. Jim Rawls, a blind history teacher and world traveler, will lead a tour of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Dutch country, Williamsburg and Washington, D.C., specially designed for the visually handicapped from June 23-30, 1979. Friends and relatives welcome but no guide dogs permitted.

Native Sons Tours, Inc., 400 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017 (212) 688-7077. Ten-day motorcoach tours of the California coast covering points of interest between San Francisco and San Diego. Two to three escorts in addition to the driver accompany each tour to assist handicapped passengers and act as guides.

Pinetree Tours, Inc., 3600 Wilshire Blvd. Suite 1516, Los Angeles, Calif. 90010. (213) 380-5604. Deluxe motor-coach tours for the handicapped and elderly in the Los Angeles area, Disneyland, San Diego, San Francisco and Yosemite. Motorcoaches can accommodate up to 10 wheelchairs and have accessible restrooms on board. Special itineraries also arranged.

Rambling Tours, Inc., P.O. Box 1304, Hallandale, Fla. 33009. (305) 456-2161. Personally escorted by owners Ruth and Murray Fein, tours have included paraplegis, quadriplegics, cardiacs, arthritics, deaf, blind and respiratory cases requiring portable iron lungs and respirators. Program for 1979 includes the British Isles, Israel and Greece.

Tourolam, Ltd., 82 Hayarkon St., Tel Aviv 63-9038 Israel. Telex: 32426 (TRLM). Twelve and 15-day program in Israel using motorcoaches that accommodate wheelchairs. Special tours available for the deaf, mute and blind.A highlight of most tours is a visit to the Spivak Sport Centre at Ramat Gan offering sports facilities for all types of disabilities.

Your Tours, Smith Haven Mall, Lake Grove, N.Y. 11755. (516) 724-4303. Ski tours to Winter Park, Colo., where the Winter Aprk Ski School, a pioneer in teaching the disabled to ski for the last 10 years, offers instruction and equipment for those with visual, hearing and amputee impairments. A limited number with cerebral palsy and spina bifida may also be able to participate.

Wilderness Encounters, Inc., P.O. Box 4317, Boise, Idaho 83703. (208) 343-7728.Raft and kayak trips on the mountain rivers of Idaho. Paraplegics and amputees have successfully learned to paddle their own kayaks. Trips meticulously planned for safety, employes sensitive to the needs of the handicapped. Departures from Boise May through September.

Woodhurst Travel Corp., 667 Central Ave., Cedarhurst, N.Y. 11516. (516) 295-0700. European tours for diabetics. Hotels selected have 24-hour room service, facilities for storing insulin. Necessary snacks provided, exercise periods scheduled.

It isn't possible to retrofit the world for handicapped accessibility all at once-if, indeed, it could ever be accomplished. But levels of awareness are being raised in this country and abroad with the result that things are being done in bothe the public and private sectors to ameliorate some of the problems handicapped people face. For example:

Amtrak's new $5.7-million passenger station in Miami is barrier-free, with ramps, elevator, accessible restrooms and telephones. All new Amtrak cars have special seats or compartments for the physically handicapped.

Frontier Airlines provides emergency procedure instructions in Braille. They have another instruction card for non-ambulatory passengers explaining special emergency procedures for them.

Hertz, Avis and National rent hand-controlled automobiles at no extra charge at many of their stations. Advance reservation requirements are three weeks for Avis, 10 days for Hertz and two hours for National. Hertz and Avis offer free drop-off privileges.

A professor of cartography at the University of Maryland develops tactual maps for the blind to be used in such places as college campuses, shopping centers, hotel lobbies and convention centers.

Both Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., and Kings Dominion near Richmond, were designed with the special needs of wheelchair visitors in mind, according to officials, thus paths, shops, restrooms and nearly all attractions are fully accessbilbe to the handicapped. (Ride attendants at these amusement parks will assist the handicapped, but in some cases the severity of the handicap may make it inadvisable to use a particular ride.)

International hotel and motel chains such as Hilton, Holiday Inns, Howard Johnson's, Hyatt International, Marriott, Ramada Inns, Rodeway Inns, Sheraton and Western International offer at various properties rooms fitted out for wheelchair guests, maps and menus in Braille, room numbers in raised letters, lowered elevator buttons and telephones. Many indicate in their directories which properties offer special facilities.

Ancient Drumlanrig Castle near Glasgow, Scotland, filled with antiques and treasures, offers a wide range of facilities for the disabled visitor, thanks to the thoughtfulness of its owner, the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, who is himself confined to a wheelchair.

United and Western Airlines both permit hearing dog guides in their passenger compartments. Not necessarily big or pure-bred, hearing dog guides are usually rescued from pounds and trained by the American Humane Association to alert their owners to specific sounds such as doorbells, alarm clocks and telephones.

The airport at Frankfurt, West Germany, one of the world's busiest, has added 14 restrooms specially outfitted for handicapped travelers.

Take-A-Guide of London, a personalized touring service offering sightseeing by private car with young qualified driver-guides throughout the British Isles and th* Continent, can cater to disabled travelers. Information from their U.S. office at 63 East 79 St., N.Y. 10021 (800) 223-6450.

Bit by bit, accessibility for the handicapped traveler is becoming more of a reality. The logistics for any individual's trip require meticulous planning and as much advance information as it is possible to get. and, even more than the rest of us, a handicapped traveler needs a healthy sense of humor to weather some of the rough spots that are still inevitable.

But hopes are high that by 1981, which has been proclaimed by the United Nations "The International Year of the Disabled," barriers will be falling at an ever-increasing rate and disabled and able-bodied will all be simply "travelers." CAPTION: Picture, TWA's "lift" eliminates the need to physically carry disabled passengers up or down outside boarding stairs at airports which do not have jetways.