Three years ago at the age of 37, Bob Garmer, then a technician at the Naval Research Laboratory, began having trouble with his eyes and decided to see a physician.

The ophthalmologist's diagnosis was grim. Scar tissue was forming inside Garmer's eyes. He had glancoma and was developing cataracts. Slowly, he was going blind.

Forced to retire on disability, Garmer, a resident of Manassas and the father of three children, sought help from the Virginia Commission for the Visually Handicapped, which recommended a rehabilitation center for the blind in Richmond to help him adjust to his loss of sight.

While there, Garmer took a variety of confidence-building courses, began familiarizing himself with Braille and decided he would get a college education.

Today, at 40, Garmer is a junior at George Mason University in Fairfax County, majoring in psychology. In part, he says, he is looking for an education "to develop a better perceptive sense as a replacement for my loss of vision." So far, he says, he has found the experience to be "very satisfying."

A volunteer organization makes tape recordings of most of his readings assignments, and George Mason provides readers for the material he can't get on tape.

Garmer is one of approximately 61 handicapped students at George Mason, a group with disabilities ranging from quadriplegia to minimal hearing loss.

Although still a relatively small group, handicapped people have been moving onto campuses growing numbers in recent years. Colleges, prompted in no small measure by recent federal legislation, 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, 79 rooms in a $7.2-million, 500-student apartment complex now under construction are being designed to accomodate students in wheelchairs. 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, this summer, began a $200,000 program for buildings and grounds renovation that includes curb cuts and ramps for students in wheelchairs, 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 an administrator and advocate for its new Department of Special Services for Handicapped Students. His job, he says, is to make the university aware of the needs of handicapped students to make certain 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 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 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 fair 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 campus.

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. The school provided no readers for her, and the library staff warned her that she would be thrown of the premises if her typing or tape recording equipment bothered other students.

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

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.

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 handicapped people haven't been eliminated overnight. John Gower, 23, paralyzed from the hips down as a result of an auto accident 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.

As it has elsewhere, the number of handicapped students at Maryland has grown from only a handful a few years ago to at least 200 now. For the first time this students in wheelchairs are living in dormitories on campus.

Probably the largest single increase in the college handicapped is among deaf persons. Four years ago, the University of Maryland had one deaf student; this fall it has 20.

For most, this involves the hiring by the university of sign language interpreters at $8.50 an hour to attend classes with the deaf students. 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."