Like thousands of other young women, 22-year-old Alex Galbraith moved out of her mother's home into her own apartment this year.

What makes Galbraith's move unusual is that he has had cerebral palsy since birth. Her new home is free of barriers that make independent living difficult for so many handicapped people.

"It's WONDERFUL," Galbraith practically shouted from her wheelchair about her apartment and her just-gained independence. "I wanted to prove to myself that I could be on my own. I can make my own decisions. I can do my thinking by myself."

A few years ago, Galbraith would have found it almost impossible to get an apartment where she could live alone comfortably like other people her age.

Within the past few years, some specially designed homes and apartments have been built or fixed up for the handicapped as attention has focused on the area's large population of disabled people and their housing problems.

The residences include small, group homes that serve only the mentally retarded or those with severe physical disabilities, apartment buildings for persons with a wide variety of handicaps, and newly built complexes that may include a dozen or so specially equipped apartments.

There is a need for much more, as well as more varied kinds of housing, persons who work with the disabled say.

"There is a growing awareness, a growing interest in barrier-free design," said Michael Nail of the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission. "There's been some consciousness-raising within the last three years."

Galbraith's new apartment is at Inwood House in Silver Spring, a five-story brown brick project dedicated last spring as the Washington area's first housing complex for the handicapped.

With 150 apartments and a construction cost of $7 million, Inwood House is the federal housing department's largest such subsidized housing project in the country. It was sponsored by Centers for the Handicapped Development Corp., a private, nonprofit group, and houses people with physical, visual, hearing, mental and emotional disabilities.

On the outside, Inwood House, at the corner of University Boulevard and Inwood Avenue in a neighborhood of modest brick homes, looks no different from any other apartment complex.

Inside, light switches, plugs are at wheelchair level. Kitchen countertops can be raised or lowered. Bathrooms and bedrooms have an emergency system to alert the staff when someone needs help. There are rails beside toilets, wide doorays and ramps.

No one seems to know exactly how many handicapped people there are in Washington metropolitan area. A U.S. Census Bureau survey in 1976 estimated that the area has 335,000 people with some kind of disability that limits their activity -- or about one out of every nine persons here.

As handicapped people became more militant in their fight against discrimination over the past decade, more people became concerned about their housing and transportation problems.

A federal law was passed in 1973 to act as a bill of rights to protect the handicapped from discrimination, but activists for the disabled say many elements of that law have yet to be enforced. Some U.S. agencies still are trying to put together regulations to carry out the law.

At one point in 1977, thousands of blind, deaf, wheelchairbound or otherwise disabled people held sit-ins at nearly a dozen federal offices throughout the country in a demonstration for equal rights. They were fighting for better access to buses and subways, for jobs, for education and better housing. b

"There used to be no place for them to go, except in institutions and nursing homes," said Beverly Price, founder of Independent Living for the Handicapped Inc., a local group that runs a home in Northwest Washington of five persons with severe physical handicaps.

The organization also plans to turn Carbury School on Capitol Hill into a home for 18 handicapped people, Price said.

"We get calls and letters from all over the world," Price said. "We have 80 or 90 people on our waiting list."

Because there are so many ways in which persons can be handicapped, different types of housing and programs are needed.

"This area just doesn't have much housing for people who need (special) access," said Leslie Milk, director of Mainstream Inc., an advocacy group for the handicapped. "The disabled live in places that are not really accessible that they manage through tremendous personal sacrifice."

A survey of apartment buildings in Alexandria for the city's landlord -tenant office last summer rated 54 out of 105 complexes as impossible to live in for people in wheelchairs. Only 11 buildings were rated as "excellently suited" for the wheelchair-bound.

The list of places suitable for persons with mental and physical handcaps is growing throughout the area.

The list would include residential treatment programs for mentally retarded people in Arlington, provided by Arlington Community Residences Inc. They have halfway homes and apartments for 72 people, according to the mental health program coordinator. Turnover is minimal, she said.

The National Hospital for Orthopedics and Rehabilitation is considering building 16 apartments for handicapped people on property adjacent to the hospital in Arlington, according to hosital administrator Edward J. Jenkins.hoJ. Jenkins.

In addition, the Cheshire Homes of Arlington County, Inc. plans to add ramps and widen doorways at a white clapboard pre-Civil War house in the country and turn it into a home for seven or eight physically handicapped people this fall, according to Joan Tuck, chairman of the group.

Fairfax County has Fisher Hall, home for 12 handicapped adults, located near Tysons Corner. It is operated by the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board and the Fairfax County Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

Besides Inwood House, Montgomery County also has 68 apartments set aside for the handicapped in several subsidized housing projects for low-and moderate-income families.

Montgomery County also has expanded its rent supplement program within the last year to include the handicapped, according to Nail of the County Housing Opportunities Commission. Under the program, handicapped people can get up to $150 a month in rent subsidies. Forty people were helped this year, Nail said.

In housing and other areas, debates have arisen over the best way to help the handicapped. For example, U.S. laws and court orders guarantee handicapped children an education as much as possible through "mainstreaming" placement in regular classrooms. Interpretation of those laws and court rulings have led to constant arguments as some parents have become dissatisfied with public school programs.

Inwood House may be the first and last of its breed -- a large complex designed strictly for handicapped people.

For while some handicapped people like living with others who have disabilities, and point out that large specialized apartment buildings operate more efficiently than small scattered projects, many critics call places like Inwood House "handicapped ghettoes." Those critics include some "federal officials as well as advocacy orgaizations for the disabled.

"Handicapped people need as many options on places to live as nonhandicapped people," said Milk of Mainstream Inc.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also supports the developement of small residential complexes for the handicapped, with no more than 12 persons in group homes and no more than 24 units in apartment complexes, a HUD official said.

A HUD official said 463 sponsoring organizations were approved to develop, 8,821 housing units for the handicapped during the past four years under the federal agency's major handicapped housing program. Locally, 12 projects with 263 units were approved. Inwood House is the only completed project here. the official said.

Like other development projects, plans to provide housing for the handicapped often to awry. San Ornstein, director of the National Childrens Center in Washington, worked for two years to buy and renovate eight houses in the city for small group homes for slightly mentally retarded persons. HUD set aside $90,000 for the project -- but then laid out so many regulations that it could not work, Ornstein said.

"I'm really discouraged with HUD," Ornstein said. "Their manuals are based on large senior citizens' housing projects, I've given it my best shot." b

Pat Rouse, the specialist in elderly and handicapped housing for the HUD office in the Washington area, sid that one of the problems with small projects that use single-family houses or small apartment buildings is that they are expensive to buy in Washington.

The program has primarily been used for multifamily buidlings averaging about 100 units," Rouse said. "We're all learning how to do smaller projects."

Many developers in the area include at least a few specially designed and equipped apartments for the handicapped when they build their complexes now. Government-funded projects for the elderly also have apartments with special features for handicapped people.

But demand for apartments from the handicapped varies. At one complex in Greenbelt with eight apartments for the handicapped, only four are occupied. At another in Largo, the 16 apartments for the disabled are occupied, but some by people without disabilities because they were the only apartments vacant when residents wanted to move in.

Experts on the handicapped say that disabled persons often cannot afford private apartments with rent subsidies. Others who can afford them choose not to because they might not be near public transportation.

Some are not aware that special apartments for the disabled are available, while others would like to move but need support services -- such as the care of a homemaker -- in order to live in their own apartments.

In Inwood House, where tenants get federal rent subsidies that enable them to pay no more than one-fourth of their income for rent, there waiting list of between 60 and 70 people, said managing agent Joan Pease. Pease said tenants at Inwood House get an average of about $4,200 a year in rent subsidies.

Inwood House residents include Vanessa Mobley, who moved there from a nursing home in Washington. Relatives placed her in the nursing home several years ago when her mother died, she said.

"It was rough," said Mobley, 25, who has multiple sclerosis and can't walk. "I was the youngest person in the nursing home. I was dealing with the people around me dying. I never thought I'd be able to get out . . . When they told me I was accepted her, it was the happiest day of my life."

Marcelino Ruiz was living with his wife and infant daughter in the basement of his mother's Northwest Washington home before they moved to Inwood House. Ruiz had polio as an infant.

The Ruizes said that one of the disadvantages of Inwood House is its mandatory weekday evening meal program. They said they would rather spend the $68 a month the meal program costs to buy and prepare their own food in their own kitchen.