Eight blind men sat quietly on metal folding chairs around a Formica-topped table in the pale green kitchen of the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Institute in Northeast Washington last week. White paper towels, folded into triangles, marked their places at the table.

The men, ranging in age from early twenties to early fifties, were waiting for the dinner they had helped prepare and would help serve during one of their twice-weekly cooking classes at the institute's night school for retarded adults.

The men are former residents of Forest Haven, the city's beleaguered facility for the mentally retarded in Laurel. Most of them had lived there an average of 20 years before moving three years ago into Kennedy Institute group homes as part of the city's program to deinstitutionalize the retarded.

Tonight, a party for students, faculty, friends and family will mark the end of the program for the summer. What these eight men and other participants don't know is that the program may be ending permanently because of a lack of funds. The institute needs $20,000 from the federal government or city agencies to continue the night school in the fall.

Although the night school--the only continuing education program for retarded adults in the city--costs about $50,000 a year to operate, Steven Essley, its coordinator, said only the $20,000 is needed because the institute expects to raise the rest from private and foundation contributions. In the past, the program has received money from the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer and Public Welfare Foundations and Knights of Columbus.

The continuing education program, sponsored by the Kennedy Institute since it began in 1979, was designed to help mildly to severely mentally retarded persons live independently of institutions. For the last two years, it was supported by a grant from the Mayor's Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, which used funds earmarked for new programs. Because the continuing education program is no longer is considered new, it no longer qualifies for the funds.

Essley said the institute has requested money from the U.S. Department of Education, the city's Mental Retardation Development Disabilities Administration (MRDDA) and the public schools' Division of Adult Education.

George T. Smith, administrator of MRDDA, expressed satisfaction with the program. "They provide many services that are germane to our clients' needs, and our experience has been that there has been a great deal of success with clients they have enrolled in the program," he said.

Smith said he will meet with the institute's directors to see if his agency can come up with funding to continue the program.

Participants in the program--all of whom have some degree of mental retardation--range in age from 21 to 76. Some suffer from Down's syndrome. Others, such as the eight blind men, have secondary or complicating disabilities.

This year, the program served 97 full-time and 16 part-time clients, with a staff of 33 full-time and four part-time instructors experienced in adult and special education.

Since the program began, it has offered courses in reading, language development, math, writing, current events, English, ceramics and crafts, painting and drawing, music, social dance and swimming, as well as Special Olympics and field trips to local museums. Students are polled at the end of each term to see what courses they wish to take next time.

Essley said the night school has had a good turnout from group homes, and many students have learned to use public transportation. He said many already work at sheltered workshops throughout the city or as housekeepers and kitchen aides.

"Retarded adults are one of the groups of people who are still relatively unserved in this day and age," Essley said. "Attention has been really focused on retarded kids for 20 years now, with the emphasis on sheltered workshop training for adults."

He said he does not know of a curriculum in the country exclusively for retarded adults.

But, as Essley and others point out, it has been demonstrated that moderately or mildly retarded persons, such as the eight blind men learning to cook, can be made relatively independent by learning basic skills.