Three mentally retarded women and their vocational counselor, denied membership to the Barbara Ellen Exercise and Fitness Center in Wheaton, have filed a discrimination complaint with the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission.

Barbara Ellen vice president David Gibson declined to comment on the situation while it is being investigated by the commission.

The retarded women, two of whom are in their late twenties and one in her early forties, are employed in the food preparation service at the Wheaton vocational center operated by the Montgomery County Association of Retarded Citizens.

A counselor there, Marilyn Solomon, said she took the three, Patricia Abell, Vicky Lewis and Ann Rawlins, to enroll at the exercise center late in August.

She said they were well-received by the salon manager, who took $59 enrollment checks from each of them. But about two weeks later, their checks were returned uncashed, along with a letter from Gibson, said an official at the vocational center.

The letter said in part, "We do not feel qualified to handle any individuals which may need special handling or have special problems."

Robert Romongna, director of the vocational center, said he tried to explain to Barbara Ellen officials that his clients would not require any special attention or safety considerations.

"I'm just appalled," Solomon said. She said she and her clients had been attending another exercise center, the Gloria Marshall Figure Salon in Wheaton, before it closed recently. "It never dawned on me that I'd have problems with this other place (Barbara Ellen)," Solomon said.

She said she was unsure why her membership application also had been denied.

Barbara Ellen is a Lanham-based organization that owns 10 centers in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

A commission spokesman said it could be months before the issue is resolved. If the commission finds in favor of the retarded clients, the exercise center could be fined.

Paul Golder, program director at the vocation center, described the incident as "frustrating," calling it a setback in his organization's efforts to promote normal living situations for retarded people. He pointed out that the three women live at home with their families and earn a small salary at the vocational center.

When the women learned they would not be able to join the exercise center, "they were shocked and very embarrassed and disappointed," Golder said. "I'm retarded, but my arms and legs work," one woman told Golder.

Solomon, the counselor, said, "I have one young lady who is so very down that now she's staring at walls."