Larry Drake didn't set out to be a role model. But the actor, who plays Benny Stulwicz, the mentally retarded character on the hit series "L.A. Law," has become a hero for people with disabilities across the country.

Like the man who told a job counselor, "I want to be Benny."

"He didn't mean that literally," said Drake. "What he meant was that he wanted a job in the mainstream that pays him a living, where he's respected. Where he's a valuable commodity in life. I guess my character and the stories involved are showing that's possible."

Possible, but still out of reach for most Americans with disabilities. Not because the Bennys of the world can't do the job, but because they rarely get the chance to prove they can: The unemployment rate for the disabled is more than 60 percent.

The Dole Foundation, which held its fifth annual awards ceremony Wednesday night at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, is trying to change those numbers. The foundation, which helps the disabled find jobs, recognized Drake and other leaders in the corporate, community and entertainment worlds.

"Disabled people aren't superpeople," said Paul Hearne, president of the foundation. "It's not like they trudge through the snow in a blizzard to open the office for everybody else.

"They're just like everybody else, but they are people with a limited function in one capacity or another. ... If the job simply doesn't require the use of that limited function, then that person with a disability can not only succeed in the job but excel."

The goal of the foundation, Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) told the 350 guests, is "simply to ensure that people with disabilities are given the opportunity to blend into the American mosaic." Dole, who has limited use of his right arm and left hand as a result of injuries in World War II, founded the organization in 1985. Since then it has given more than $3 million to community vocational training programs for the handicapped.

"For a lot of people, it's attitude," said Dole. "They don't know what to do when they see a wheelchair. Some people cross the street -- they're embarrassed to talk to somebody with a disability."

In the workplace, one of the difficulties is in getting past the myths and stereotypes. "Like, 'If I hire one I can't fire one. I'd be like Simon Legree or Scrooge if I fired a disabled person,' " said Hearne.

A major advancement will be the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which would prohibit job discrimination by both government and private employers. The bill is expected to be signed by President Bush next month.

The Wednesday night awards dinner honored one corporation that didn't wait for a federal mandate to hire the handicapped. McDonald's Corp., which began employing people with disabilities in the '60s, was presented with the Dole Foundation's Leadership Award for its policies and programs, including the decade-old "McJobs" training program, through which more than 8,000 people with disabilities have gone to work in its restaurants across the country.

"It's been great for us," said McDonald's Vice President Cliff Raber. "A lot of {disabled employees} are more dependable and more loyal than the transition-type work force that we have." And Raber said the costs of training are offset by a lower turnover rate.

"To us, it's good business," he said. "I don't know why everybody doesn't do it."

Actor Drake and "L.A. Law" executive producer David E. Kelley received the foundation's Media Awareness Award for bringing national attention to the disabled in the workplace. "Life Goes On" star Christopher Burke, who has Down syndrome, and Christopher Templeton, an actress on "The Young and the Restless," were also honored, although they were not present at the ceremony.

"We don't sit around in story meetings and say, 'How can we make the world a better place?' " said Kelley. "But the character has been an inspiration to us and we're hoping that inspiration will also be compelling to our viewers."

Kelley, who attended the awards ceremony with Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, said he had just received a letter from a placement organization for retarded citizens. The character of Benny, it said, has directly influenced its ability to place people in office jobs.

"I didn't know I was doing this when I took this job," said Drake, who has picked up two Emmys for his portrayal of Benny. "I just saw an interesting guy. I just thought it was a fascinating story on a show I loved. I didn't know it would have this social impact.

"Millions of Americans never dealt with this. On Thursday nights they can look at it through the glass and say, 'Oh, that's not as bad as I thought it was.'

"Now, if they can just let Benny-like people on their side of the glass, they're going to find pretty much the same thing."