Betty Knapp, who has been confined to a wheelchair for years, sadly recalls the times she wanted to receive communion at churches, but was unable to maneuver her wheelchair to the altar.

She also remembers her embarrassment when the Gospel depicted handicapped persons as sinners.

But instead of leaving the church, as religious leaders say many other handicapped persons have done, Knapp began trying to things.

She now works part-time as a consultant on the handicapped at the U.S. headquarters of the World Council of Churches in New York City. In 1975, she was responsible for getting the issues of the handicapped on the WCC assembly agenda.

"People say, 'Why should we go through all that trouble to build a ramp?'" said Knapp. "'We don't have any people [at our church] in whellchairs.' But the reason they don't have any is because they [the handicapped] can't get in."

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, over 36 million Americans are seriously handicapped. That averages out to one in six Americans who are partially or totally blind or deaf, partially or totally paralyzed, or missing major extremities, according to calculations.

Until the past two or three years, churches and synagogues, like many other public places, made few provisions for the handicapped.

Although many major denominations have issued statements in response to the problems of the handicapped, most of the proposed changes remain in the planning stages.

June Shimokawa, who works with the United Methodist Church task force on the handicapped in New York City, said that a lack of money and information is keeping religious institutions from meeting the needs of the handicapped.

Making buildings accessible to the handicapped -- installing ramps, removing pews and installing special equipment -- can cost a good deal, said Shimokawa.

According to denomination leaders, Washington-area congregations have been more sensitive to the needs of the handicapped than churches and synagogues in other major cities.

Now, at least a dozen congregations here regularly interpret their services through sign language and exaggerated lip movements to help the deaf. Many institutions have installed ramps and enlarged passages so that wheelchair-bound persons and others with mobility problems can enter more easily.

Each Sunday, the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington broadcasts a "mass for the shut-ins" on a major television station. Soon the broadcast will be interpreted for the deaf, said the Rev. Maurice Fox, who has been offering the mass for 11 years.

Most religious denominations now urge that any new buildings be "barrier free." One denomination, the American Lutherans, has announced that it will deny low-interest loans to new churches whose building plans do not meet the needs of the physically handicapped.

The United Methodist Church has held hearings in major cities for the past year and a half on the needs of the handicapped. "We gave people a chance to share with us their situations," said Shimokawa. "We've found that even though they're concerned about housing and employment, they are even more disturbed by the attitudinal barrier of the institutions that are supposed to be the most sensitive to peoples' needs.

The National Association for the Jewish Deaf is working on universal signs that can be used to interpret synagogue services, according to Chiam Lauer, of the United Jewish Appeal Federation here.

Christian groups developed universal signs for their services many years ago, Lauer said.

Jewish and Christian religious schools are putting physically and mentally handicapped children in regular classes whenever possible.

"The Catholic Church has been very good about educating the handicapped in isolated settings," said Sister Suzanne Hall, executive director of the National Catholic Education Association's special education department here. "But now we want to look at each individual child and educate him in a more normal setting whenever possible by providing the special support services in the regular classroom," she said.

The Rev. Virginia Kreyer, a United Church of Christ consultant on the handicapped, who is handicapped because of cerebral palsy, said she sees churches moving slowly to accommodate the handicapped, because "you're working with human emotion and that takes time. There is a great resistance to having to face the fact that there are people in the world who are 'not normal'."

"Our Lord was very concerned about the handicapped," she added. "It's a part of the whole Christian message. But we're just awakening to the message."