When Billy Barty was 3 years old, he couldn't slip his stubby hands into his pants pockets and pick out change to buy candy at the drugstore. Knowing that dwarfs commonly face a lifetime of inconvenience and cruelty, Barty's father was determined to raise his small-sized son -- then only 21 inches tall -- to take care of himself. So he taught Billy to stand on his head and spin until change fell from his pockets.

Soon after, a Hollywood director spotted Barty doing his headspin in front of Selznick Studios and put him in a movie. "I've been in the entertainment business off and on ever since," says Barty, whose face is recognized worldwide from roles in 200 films, among them "Under the Rainbow" and "Day of the Locust."

Now, at 63, and barely a foot taller than in his head-spinning days, Barty still bends over backward for change. Only it's not nickels and dimes anymore. It's fundamental change in the life of disabled people.

"There are 1.5 million little people in the United States -- one out of every 10,000 people born will be a little person. And they need support," says Barty, here last week at the National Association of Home Builders to discuss structural barriers in housing and public buildings that confront the disabled, and particularly people of small stature. "They need to become a part of and not apart from society."

Until recently, even the simplest solutions to the problems of inaccessibility for disabled people were overlooked. Increased use and visibility of parking spaces for the handicapped, grab bars in public bathrooms and wheelchair ramps have forced some public awareness of these issues. But Barty and other activists for the disabled call those the most basic of adjustments -- and ones that even today are hardly universal.

"So much of that pertains to people in wheelchairs," says Barty, who applauds the intent but not the extent of those innovations. He points out inconsistencies: For instance, gradually rolled curbs that are an answered prayer for wheelchair users can be a curse to a blind person tapping a cane to find the end of the sidewalk and the beginning of traffic. "{These adaptations} seldom take into consideration somebody who is short of stature, somebody who is a senior citizen, someone who is sight-impaired or hearing-impaired ... "

But, according to some experts, the society may soon be turning the corner on concerns of the disabled segment of the population. The next big step, they say, will go beyond the wheelchair ramp mentality to accommodate a diversity of disabilities, both in attitude and architecture.

"This is a hot topic right now," says A. Kelsey Marshall, special adviser for disability issues in the office of intergovernmental relations at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Serving as a federal liaison between special-interest groups, state and local governments, and associations such as the Home Builders, Marshall attributes a refocusing on the integration of the disabled into mainstream society to a convergence of several influences.

"There are at least 37 million Americans in this country with a disability," says Marshall. "Thirty-seven million is a very large constituency ... and these people are becoming much more vocal. It's like the old Proposition-13 attitude: 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore.' The Civil Rights movement of the '60s did not have 37 million in their numbers when they started marching."

At the same time, she says, people with physical and mental limitations "are becoming more able to get into the mainstream through high technology and medical advancements that allow them to survive their illnesses or accidents, and enable them to live more independently than being sequestered off in an institution where they would vegetate until they die."

Meanwhile, victories on the attitudinal front have won wider public recognition that disabled people can live active and productive lives. "A person with a disability still has ability," says Marshall, who has a hearing impairment. "And I think people are tired of thinking of disability as distinctive, different and downtrodden. We don't need to be patronizing. We don't need to pity. We need to accent the positive -- and that means allow those people to live their lives and make their own contributions ... like Billy Barty, who for 60 years of his life has been identified as a person who is not the same as everyone else, but is certainly capable."

Still, Marshall says it is the barriers of the mind that prove the most difficult to remove. "Thinking what can a dwarf do but go into the circus -- that's an attitude," she says. "A deaf person shouldn't be allowed to go to meetings because they don't hear well -- that's an attitude. Or a person with arthritis probably could not be an artist -- it's that whole gamut."

Billy Barty believes the key to positive public response to disability issues starts with eliminating self-imposed limitations and changing the negative self-image many disabled people have of themselves. That's one reason he founded The Billy Barty Foundation, a nonprofit organization headquartered in North Hollywood, Calif., that provides "educational, medical and social direction for people of small stature."

"It hasn't been an easy road, and there were a lot of times in my life I've asked 'Why? Why? Why?' But I try to look at all the positive things instead of the negative," says Barty. "I was very fortunate because of the attitude my parents took. I come from an Italian family in which they told me to reach the light switch by getting up on a chair," he says. "I could cook when I was 10. My life has been different due to the fact that I started in the entertainment business when I was 3."

When Barty was an undergraduate at Los Angeles City College, the football coach told him he couldn't be on the team because no uniform would fit him. Barty's mother quickly helped her son sew together a smaller version of the team's jersey and pants, trimmed the shoulder pads and stuffed rubber padding into a helmet. For Barty, one hip pad did the job that requires two for average-sized players. Not only did he letter in football, he also played varsity basketball in which he wore the number " 1/2" on his uniform.

But while his parents raised him to live an independent life, Barty says parents of most people with disabilities are overprotective. "Many little people's lives are sheltered, where the parents say, 'We don't need anybody's help. We have us ... we can take care of our child.' But all of a sudden that child is now 40 years old and the parents are no longer around. A lot of little people have that same psychological problem -- they've got to get away from the home."

The biggest project Barty has tackled on behalf of little people is his Transitional Living Center -- a place he hopes will pioneer multifaceted "halfway houses" for disabled people escaping stifling homes and heading into society. The center, which Barty expects to start building later this year in Los Angeles, will cost $5 million to complete -- all from funds to be raised by his foundation.

Typically, those who come to the center will stay from three to six months and live in one of 24 two-bedroom suites, each to be equipped with a small sized kitchen and a regular kitchen (for training), plus state-of-the-art alterations to accommodate disabilities. Weekend motel-style rooms will be provided to families who participate in the center's educational programs and family therapy.

In addition, the center will provide medical assistance, psychological counseling and group therapy directed toward the special problems of small-statured people. It will offer vocational training in conjunction with the six scholarships the foundation already grants annually to little people to attend the Los Angeles Trade Technical College. All services, says Barty, will be free to any dwarf or midget who can't afford to pay for them.

"After people leave the Transitional Center," he says, "they become a part of society. By then we hope that they will become socially adapted, mentally adapted, will be educated in a particular trade ... By the time we are through with them, we hope they will be so adjusted that size does not make a difference, and the only barrier that anyone will have to conquer is the one between their ears."

In addressing groups such as the Home Builders, however, Barty focuses on physical obstructions. And since the National Association of Home Builders received a $300,000 research contract a year ago from HUD to study the design and financing of homes for disabled people, its National Research Center, in Upper Marlboro, Md., has become a test laboratory for tomorrow's barrier-free environments.

Says Barty of the Home Builders: "I'd like them to build a house that would not only be suitable for average persons but would be suitable for me -- without any extra attention, without the 'Oh, my gosh, we've got another handicapped person moving in so we've got to rebuild the whole house, we've got to change the lights, we've got to change this and that.'

"There has got to be a way to make everything standard, to standardize closets for reaching, standardize sockets so people with arthritis don't have to bend way down, the doors at 34 inches so they'll take a wheelchair ... "

Some of those ideas are already being drawn into the blueprints of showcase homes to demonstrate the concept of adaptability in home building. For instance, in a promotional event called the "Street of Dreams" scheduled to open this July in Portland, Ore., the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland is sponsoring the construction of a house that eliminates many of the most common barriers. For example, all light switches are no more than 48 inches from the floor, lower cabinets in the kitchen are easily removed to create under-the-counter knee space for homeowners in wheelchairs, shelving in the kitchen and rods in closets are adjustable to different heights, doorknobs are replaced with levers, windows are opened and closed with cranks, and entrances are graded to eliminate steps.

"Unless you have somebody in your household who has a disability, or in some way you become disabled yourself, you just really never think of these things," says Bill Young, the Home Builders' director of consumer affairs and public liaison. Young says that's primarily why the nation's home builders, architects and developers rarely incorporate such standards into their plans and construction.

Young likes to point to innovations under development at the National Research Center that promise to make life easier and more efficient for everyone -- including the disabled. In a test house dubbed "Smart House," Home Builders researchers have devised a wiring system that combines all wiring systems into one circuit -- electric, telephone, cable television, stereo wiring.

"One of the advantages, of course, is that you can plug a telephone into any outlet anywhere in the house," says Young. "Instead of having to string wires from your stereo receiver to your speakers, you can plug your speakers in any room in the house."

Researchers at Smart House are also experimenting with voice-activated controls as well as control panels that would enable someone to lock the doors, turn off any light in the house, check the burners on the stove and adjust the thermostat, among other tasks, from a centralized panel next to the bed. "It really holds a lot of promise for people with various disabilities," says Young, adding that those features are expected to go into production for new homes in the early 1990s.

Young says accommodating disabilities in housing isn't only a question of design. "There are all sorts of problems throughout the whole process of buying a house," he says. "One of the problems people with disabilities have is that they might not have a lot of money, or there might be lender resistance" to loaning them money so they can buy a house. The association is exploring creative financing for people with disabilities.

The affordability question goes hand in hand with the issue of accessibility and availability, says HUD's Kelsey Marshall, "because what is accessibility when it is not available and when it is not affordable?

"The demands for housing for people with disabilities clearly haven't been met," she says, estimating that only about 24,000 units that accommodate disabled people have been provided through government sponsored programs in the past 10 years. "That's a drop in the bucket," she says. "Government can assist. But the demand has become so great that it goes beyond any kind of government funding."

That's where transitional centers such as Billy Barty's is critical, says Marshall. "Billy is going to show the person of small stature, along with his or her family, how they can become an intricate part of society and not rely heavily on government to provide them with a job, with a living place, with education, and so forth. It's going to show them that they can become tax-paying citizens and choose where they want to live because somebody like Billy has taken the initiative to do this. Because we can't all spin on our heads ... "