The physical barriers are obvious -- 8-inch curbs looming tall as Mt. Everest, narrow toilet stalls, swinging doors, gravel paths, flights of stairs.

But it was the emotional barriers -- in many ways more devestating -- that most surprised two dozen able-bodied people confined to wheelchairs as part of Barrier's Awareness Day.

"I found myself looking up to people an awful lot," confessed John F. Herrity, chairman of Fairfax County's Board of Supervisors. "I'm not sure if I'd ever get used to that."

"It's very hard to get people to pay attention to you," said Fairfax Journal reporter Shoshana Hoose, "or treat you as someone with authority."

"Colleagues I met acted like I had a virus they didn't want to catch," said Fairfax City Councilman Carl Hemmer. "It's certainly a strong deterrent to human relations."

About 20 other opinion- and policy-shapers spent (or tried to spend) an average workday in a wheelchair, as part of the day last week sponsored by the Fairfax County Commission for the Handicapped.

"Exhausting," "time-consuming," "occasionally humiliating" were the repeated reactions. Some of the biggest frustrations, participants noted, arose from seemingly "little things."

"The simple act of trying to get my chair under my desk at work turned into a big production," said Democratic state Sen. Richard Saslaw. "It really hit home that the things I take for granted are a major task for anyone in a wheelchair."

"When you have to carry your cafeteria tray on your lap," said Patricia Simpitch of the Department of Transportation, "you become very careful about what you choose. I always have a large cup of hot tea. But today I had milk."

In addition to other annoyances -- such as paper-towel racks and grocery shelves too high to reach and knuckles scraped going through doors -- were the more life-altering problems. Perhaps the most horrifying was Bob Schramn's 4-hour "Metrobus nightmare."

"I planned to take the bus and subway to get to my office on L Street," said Shramn, a consultant studying handicapped access problems with the country's mass transit systems. "I left here (the Tysons Westpark Hotel) at 9 a.m. I got to my office at 1:15.

"The buses that stop here aren't equipped with wheelchair lifts. So I had to go to the bus stop at Hechts in Tyson's Corner. Those five blocks, mostly uphill and often in traffic because there weren't enough curb cuts, were murder on my back.

"At Hechts we had to go an extra quarter of a mile just to find a loading ramp we could use to get onto the sidewalk. On the first bus the two wheelchair spaces were already occupied. On the next, the driver had never used the wheelchair lift before and didn't know how to work it.

"Forty-five minutes later another bus came by, and the driver tried to operate the lift. But it got stuck when I was halfway up and I almost fell, so they got me down. By then it was 11:15, so we took a van to Ballston.

"The subway was pretty well designed, with the exception of the elevator placement which meant we had to negotiate the length of the platform to get there. Had it been rush hour that might have been a big problem.

"I missed a meeting I had set up with a contractor. By the time we finally got there it was time to turn around and come back."

This kind of transportation and access problem "means everything takes double and triple the usual time," said Donald Beyer Jr. of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce. "And time is always a scarce resource in my life.

"You can't just go and do. Everything's got to be planned out. Then barriers still manage to get in the way. And you become very dependent on other people."

For some, the physical and emotional barriers lead to fear and embarrassment.

"I thought at one time I was going to turn over," said Msgr. Frank Hendrick of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington. "Another time, the people we were with left my partner (a disabled person experienced in wheelchair manuevers) and I. We felt totally abandoned."

"Several years ago people in my church wanted to put in an elevator," added Neil Jones, pastor of Columbia Baptist Church. "I thought it was too big an expense. But I wished I hadn't felt that way when they had to carry me up a flight of stairs to my office."

Some participants decided they might have to change careers if their day-long "disability" was a permanent one. "Having the job I have," said a reporter, "might be too difficult."

"The strongest impression for me," said Lynton Deck of Fairfax County Public Schools, "was to reinforce my realization of the courage of the people who deal with this all the time."

But double-amputee Larry Fink advised the participants to do more than "thank their stars that they're healthy. We've got to enforce the barrier-free standards that are on the books right now.

"Statistics show that every person, without exception, will at some time in their life become handicapped -- if they live to old age. So anything you can do for the handicapped today, you'll really be doing for yourself further down the road."