Timothy Barkley and Zeddie Hart were not among the dignitaries called to speak at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new apartment building yesterday. But they were at the head of the line to take up the shovel.

Barkley and Hart, sitting side by side in their wheelchairs, took turns digging ground at 1301 Belmont St. NW, the site for a barrier-free apartment house for handicapped adults. Ramps, wide doors and specially equipped kitchens and bathrooms will make the building accessible and convenient for disabled tenants.

"Many handicapped people dream of having an apartment of their own, a place where they can make their own decisions," said Hart. "For many it will be a dream come true and a chance to live a normal life."

The 20-unit building, expected to be completed by next summer, is a project of Independent Living for the Handicapped Inc., a nonprofit organization. It will be funded with a $1 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a $267,000 loan from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development.

Beverly Price, one of the founders of Independent Living, said her organization has been trying to obtain loans and a site for the building for several years. She said the organization is trying to provide alternative living arrangements for severely handicapped adults, particularly young adults.

"Traditionally young adults with able minds and disabled bodies have been housed with the elderly or with people who have mental problems and in situations where they have been supervised," said Price. "We're here to say we're not going to tolerate the word supervision and to say that these handicapped people have special needs and want to be independent."

HUD Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr. was unable to attend, but sent a letter congratulating Independent Living.

"There is a great need for facilities which are suitably situated to provide for the unique and delicate needs of the severely disabled," Pierce wrote. "Through this responsible initiative of your organization, aided by HUD's Section 202 programs, you are helping to meet this need for the greater Washington, D.C., area."

The building will house about 20 tenants, to be selected by Independent Living, in three two-bedroom apartments, 15 one-bedroom apartments and two efficiencies. Price said 80 persons have already applied for apartments. She said the criteria for selecting residents have not been determined.

The tenants will have their rents subsidized by HUD's Section 8 rent subsidy program, under which a tenant pays no more than 30 percent of his or her income for rent.

Independent living has two smaller facilities, at 4815 Chesapeake St. NW and at at 7333 New Hampshire Ave. in Takoma Park.

City Council members Frank Smith Jr. (D-Ward 1), Hilda H.M. Mason (Statehood-At Large) and Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) joined about 70 persons at the groundbreaking ceremony.

As the ceremony ended and the dignitaries were leaving, Barkley positioned his wheelchair on the sidewalk and glanced at the balloons tied to the bulldozer on the site, opposite Cardozo High School.

"It's going to be a good experience," he said. "It will mean a lot for people to be in a place where they can do things for themselves."