When Ralph W. Sanders took charge of Maryland's blind workshops several years ago, there were gates at the stairways so the blind wouldn't tumble down them. Poles they might bump into were padded. Fire drills operated under the "buddy system," with workers told to wait for a sighted person to lead them to safety.

Under orders from the new boss, however, the gates were soon removed, the padding torn away and the blind instructed on how to get out of buildings on their own in emergencies.

"Part of being an independent, functional person is coping with the world as it is," says Sanders, who lost his sight in a childhood shooting accident 30 years ago and now runs Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM). "There are other poles out there, and they aren't going to be padded."

In Sanders's view, blindness need be "only a physical nuisance" and the blind should be trained, not protected or treated as automatic social welfare cases. To many specialists who work with the blind, however, this kind of tough-it-out attitude is unrealistic and fails to take into account the fact that training and opportunity alone won't always overcome the reality of a serious handicap.

These contrasting philosophies have collided in the operation of a relatively obscure federal program, known as the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act, set up to give handicapped persons in sheltered workshops priority in selling goods and services to the government. Initially established to help blind workers who couldn't find jobs in the competitive labor market, the program was expanded several years ago to include other severely handicapped workers.

Only a minority of the estimated 450,000 working-age blind end up in any of the nation's 4,500 sheltered workshops, and only a fraction of those actually take part in Javits-Wagner-O-Day-assisted activities. Still, from a modest offer in 1938 to buy "mops, brooms and other suitable commodities," the government is expected this year to buy more than $195 million worth of products and services from the workshops, everything from scrubber pads, money bags and groundskeeping services to uniforms, paper tablets and tracheotomy kits. Today, 227 workshops and some 11,000 employes participate.

But concern is now being expressed in Congress and elsewhere about whether the program is being run properly, who it should serve and whether workshop employes, particularly those who are blind, are getting paid enough for their labor. Furthermore, the issues associated with workshop employment--fair pay, promotions and whether the workshop environment challenges employes or expects less of them--are raising broader questions about job opportunities for, and attitudes about, all blind people.

Depending on performance and whether they are in a "therapeutic" or production classification, employes earn as little as 40 cents an hour and as much as $7 or $8 an hour in a few cases. The average wage for blind workshop employes under the Javits-Wagner-O'Day program is $3.68 an hour, according to its managers, or $3.44 an hour if the lower pay for those in the therapeutic or work activity centers is included in the calculations.

Operators of the program say that only three of the blind workshops are paying salaries that average less than half of the federal minimum wage of $3.35 an hour, but there are no records available showing how many employes are earning subminimum pay. The Department of Labor must issue special certificates permitting workshops to pay subminimum wages, but the agency is able to investigate only about 10 percent of the 4,800 shops each year to verify that employes are, in fact, being paid what they deserve. Department officials say more than 19,000 handicapped workers were underpaid nearly $4 million between fiscal years 1980 and 1982.

Those who run the workshops see them as employers of last resort. About half of the employes are classified as multihandicapped, meaning they are both blind and retarded, deaf, elderly, crippled or emotionally disturbed. For them, workshop managers say, employment is as much for rehabilitation and self-worth as for productivity. And the managers argue that workshops forced to pay full wages to such employes would either go broke or stop giving these less capable handicapped people any job opportunities.

At the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind in Washington, for example, 93-year-old John Meshaw and Toni Laverette, 23, share a table making and packaging scrubbers. Meshaw, who says he would "rather wear out working than wear out in a wheelchair," earns $3.80 an hour. But Laverette, who is retarded and uses nails hammered in a board to help her count out packages of a dozen, earns $2.10.

Sanders believes that those employed by a workshop should be paid at least the federal minimum wage. Anything less, he says, is exploitation. He advocates running the workshops "more like businesses and less like day-care centers." Estimating that fully half the workshop employes make less than the minimum wage, he says he finds the low wages particularly objectionable "when some workshops have a net worth of $50 to $60 million but pay blind people 80 cents an hour."

BISM, under Sanders, also has challenged the administration of the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act and called on its managers, the National Industries for the Blind (NIB) and the presidentially appointed Committee for Purchase from the Blind and Other Severely Handicapped, to give a better accounting of how blind-earned funds generated by the public program are spent.

The purchase committee is a small, federally funded body charged with the overall administration of the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act. NIB is a private, nonprofit agency that acts as go-between with the government and the blind workshops in arranging and allocating federal contracts. It is supported by a 4 percent commission fee charged the workshops on each government order. Last year, the fees received by NIB totaled $4.2 million.

At recent congressional oversight hearings, Sanders joined representatives of the National Federation of the Blind, which he used to head, and one other workshop in Kentucky in questioning NIB's contract distribution methods, criticizing the commission fee as excessive and complaining that the agency is not accounting for how it spends the money.

Such a broad sweep of accusations has infuriated the program's administrators and several other workshop managers. They say BISM, the third largest in sales in the program, is pushing its own production-oriented agenda at the expense of the smaller workshops and trying to create the appearance of a controversy where there is none. And they warn that a mandatory minimum wage could cost the jobs of less productive workers, who want and need employment, too.

"I don't care what you say, a lot of those people wouldn't be working period if it wasn't for the workshops," said William S. Thompson, executive director of Florida's Lighthouse for the Blind of the Palm Beaches. He says BISM can afford to pay the minimum wage because it is a big shop and hires the most capable workers at the expense of the least capable.

"We're a self-help operation with the large shops helping the small shops, says George J. Mertz, executive director of the National Industries for the Blind. "Our function is to create work for the nation's blind people, not just Baltimore's blind people."

Sanders, however, rejects the notion that somehow his workers are among "the super blind" or more capable than at other shops. He says his employes, half of whom are classified as multihandicapped, perform as capable employes because they are treated as capable employes.

He cites, by way of example, a mentally retarded blind woman who was described as being "a vegetable" when he took over BISM in 1975. "She had to be led to the bathroom and have her food cut up for her," he recalled. "We treated her as normal and healthy, and she came to behave that way. Today, she's married and taking care of a household and living a more independent life."

BISM is a quasistate, multiservice organization that operates three workshops and does $8 million worth of industry sales a year. Its employes all have one thing in common: they couldn't find work anyplace else.

A college education, for instance, didn't help Ron Metenyi, 39, who despite a degree and some business college and computer programing training has had countless job-hunting disappointments. He even passed the Civil Service exam with a score of 98.3, he says.

"But nobody would hire me because I'm blind," says Metenyi, who lost his sight at the age of 5 because of glaucoma. "After awhile you get discouraged and settle into a routine." Today he earns between $90 and $160 a week, depending on productivity bonuses, as a "pad catcher" in BISM's Baltimore shop.

"The public still has the idea we're limited," says Pat Winebrenner, 29, who earns $3.55 an hour sewing mail bags at BISM's Cumberland plant. Since losing her sight 8 1/2 years ago after radiation treatments for leukemia, now in remission, she has noticed that sighted people expect less of her. "It tickles me when I go somewhere, to the store or someplace, and people get all concerned when I go to leave. How do they think I got there?"

The assumption that the blind are virtually helpless is one reason many can't find work and end up in workshops, says Sanders. And paying the blind subminimum wages, he and the NFB believe, only encourages such negative stereotyping.

But other workshops and blind or blind-service groups either oppose any pay revisions or, like the American Council of the Blind (ACB), support increasing workshop wages to no less than 75 percent of the minimum wage.

"All blind people aren't equally well-oriented, mobile and capable," argues Oral O. Miller, the ACB's national representative. "There are some situations where the personnel just can't do minimum-wage work, but they shouldn't be denied a job because of this."

The dispute has heightened an already-bitter rivalry among national groups concerned with the problems of the blind. They are split on philosophies and tactics, with the workshop issue being but one battleground.

"If you were a Catholic would you let an atheist join your church?" asks NFB president Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, explaining why he doesn't accept members who also belong to the American Council of the Blind.

"Does Macy's promote Gimbel's?" counters the ACB's Miller, whose group did not list NFB's competing convention in a recent caldendar of blind-sponsored events.

BISM's long-simmering feud with program operators boiled over about a year ago when it began withholding commission fees to protest its failure to receive certain financial information. It was especially concerned about the use of commission fees to help workshop managers file a labor jurisdiction challenge against employes seeking to unionize.

Program operators say they have not misused any funds and have kept workshop managers apprised of budget matters. The National Industries for the Blind says it is particularly proud of its efforts to create employment for the blind, though it concedes it could do a better job in its own back yard, where only three of 70 staff members are blind.

The General Accounting Office has also said the program's budget and commission fees should be better accounted for, something the purchase committee is in the process of doing. And NIB recently announced plans to lower the commission fee to 3.5 percent, noting that $800,000 in fee collections have been rebated to the workshops in the last two to three years.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), whose subcommittee held hearings on the program and expects to recommend some changes in it, said he wants to make sure workshop employes are being paid fairly and that direct labor employes are given chances to move up into management positions.

And the American Council of the Blind would like the workshops to improve their efforts at placing workers in outside employment, according to Miller. But he acknowledges that for a variety of reasons--the economy, job discrimination, fear--blind workshop employes may not want or be able to find other work.

So until employment opportunities open up, argues James Gashel, NFB's director of governmental affairs, blind workers should have a bigger say in workshop activities, especially those sponsored by the federal government.

"Social attitudes about blindness place us in a role of second-class status, so we have to have some special initiatives," Gashel says. "But that doesn't justify discrimination." When Javits-Wagner-O'Day was first started, he says, "the idea was that blind people made brooms--they didn't run the places that made the brooms. Now we know different. What has changed is our concept and the reality of what we can expect from ourselves."