Under ordinary circumstances, college life for University of Maryland freshman John Nolan, 20, of Towsen, would present no great difficulties.

An A student from Calvert Hall School in Baltimore, Nolan is enrolled in an honors program at the University's College Park campus where he has no trouble digesting the academic material that is thrown at him.

He lives in a dormitory where, he says, he has a "profusion" of friends. He enjoys an occasional beer, and he likes to go to Maryland football games at Byrd Stadium just across the street from his dormitory.

But Nolan is confined to a wheelchair because he suffers from cerebral palsy. Although he can hear and understand perfectly, he is unabled to speak. Only with great difficulty can he control the movement of his arms and less. Communications for him is a slow and tortuous process of pointing to letters and symbols marked on a board he carried on his lap. To type, he pecks at the typewriter keys with an antenna like device he wears strapped to his head.

He needs help to perform such routine functions as eating and drinking; a 20-minute quiz can take him as long as an hour and a half as he spells out answers on his communication board. To move about the campus, he is driven in a van equipped with a lift for people in wheelchairs.

Nolan is studying psychology at Maryland, but he notes with some justification that "my real major is survival."

Nolan is one of approximately 200 handicapped students at Maryland this year, a group with disabilities ranging from quadriplegia to minimal hearing loss.

Although still a small group, handicapped people have been moving onto campuses in growing numbers in recent years. Colleges, prompted in no small measure by recent federal legislation barring discrimination against the handicapped, are acting in a myriad of ways to see to it that the handicapped can participate in the mainstream of university life.

At Georgetown University, for example, 76 rooms in a $7.2-million, 500 student apartment complex now under construction are being designed to accommodate students in wheelchair. Officials at the University of the District of Columbia staged a "Handicapped Awareness Day" shortly after the academic year began this fall to call attention to handicapped students. American University, just this summer, began a $200,000 program for buildings and grounds renovation that includes curb cuts and ramps for students in wheel chairs, flashing light fire alarms for deaf students and campus signs in braille for the blind.

Last month, Catholic University hired Don McCallin, a blind graduate student, as the school's first administrator and advocate in a new Department of Special Services for Handicapped Students. His assignment to make the university aware of the needs of handicapped students and to make sure that handicapped students at Catholic "can be competitive with the rest of the university."

"Handicapped individuals are becoming more militant," says Linda Donnels, director of services for handicapped students at George Washington University, a post established this fall.

"They are fed up with not being able to participate fully in community life. They are becoming more visible and more vocal, and they are tired of being kept in the background.

"There are going to be more and more disabled people coming to the universities. In the past it has been just too much of a hassle for many disabled students to pursue any kind of university life."

Probably more than any single development, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is opening doors for handicapped people. That clause requires all institutions receiving federal funds to make their programs and activities available to handicapped persons in the same degree they do to nonhandicapped persons.

It requires institutions to provide communication aides for the visually and hearing impaired and to eliminate architectural barriers that would exclude persons in wheelchairs. It also requires reasonable modification of admissions tests and academic requirements to permit the handicapped fiar placement and full educational opportunities.

Although the law was enacted in 1973, guidelines for compliance were not drawn up until three years later, and it has only been in the last year that its impact has begun to be felt on campuses.

Two years ago, for example, when Maryanne Masterson, a blind student, enrolled in graduate school in international relations at George Washington, the school offered her virtually no assistance. It provided no readers for her, and the library staff warned her that she would be thrown off the premises if her typing or tape recording equipment bothered other students.

"I almost left after the first semester," Masterson said.

Since then things have improved markedly. She has readers now, paid for by the university and by the Commission for the Blind in Rhode Island, her home state. And she serves on a universitywide committee charged with opening up educational opportunities for the handicapped.

When Patricia Godsey enrolled at Fairfax County's George Mason University four years ago she was the only student in a wheelchair, and there were only a handful of students with handicaps of any kind.

Now there are six wheelchair students at George Mason among a handicapped population of 61.

Godsey, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, is president of the Handicapped Students Association at George Mason, an organization formed because Godsey felt "as a group we would have a much better chance of impacting some change on campus."

When Godsey is graduated in January, she will be the first wheelchair student to receive a degree from George Mason.

"George Mason is becoming a little more responsive as handicapped people are more visible on campus," says Godsey. "That awareness can only increase in the future."

Is is true, however, that barriers against handicapped people haven't been eliminated overnight. John Gower, 23, paralyzed from the hips down as a result of an auto acident two years ago, was unable to take the lab section of an organic chemistry course this fall because the lab is on the second floor of a building that has no elevators. He says he will probably do the lab work at Northern Virginia Community College.

In general, though, Gower says, "I've found attitudes are good. People are all so ready to help you. You don't want to accept too much help because that deprives you of your independence."

"The handicapped movement is the third great civil rights movement, right behind blacks and women," says John Van Brunt, who has been organizing services for disabled students at the University of Maryland.

For the first time this year students in wheelchairs are living in dormitories on campus.

Tom Willis is, like cerebral palsy victim John Nolan, an honors student and he is thriving at Maryland. Born with no arms and only the tiny stump of a hand on his right side, Willis finished the last academic year with a grade point average of 39 out of a possible 40. He writes by holding a pen in his toes, and he commutes to College Park in a specially designed car.

To start the car, he puts his left foot on the accelerator and turns the ignition key with his right knee. He steers with his left foot by turning a huge metal disc on the floor of the car that is connected to the steering column by a heavy duty metal chain.

"I'm having a good time. I like it here," says Willis.

Probably the largest single increase in the college handicapped is among deaft persons. Four years ago, the University of Maryland had one deaf students. However, officials fear funds for this service may run out before the end of the year.

Curtis Robbins, a deaf student studying for his doctorate in education, always bring an interpreter to class, although he can read lips.

"I want my mind to be with the professor and what he's saying," said Robbins, a graduate of Gallaudet College for the deaf in Washington.

"I get my fellow classmates to take notes for me, because I can't possibly write and keep my eye on the interpreter at the same time. It's different from a social situation. There I never use an interpreter because I consider myself an excellent lip reader."