This Christmas, Timothy Barkley, 25, plans for the first time to cook Christmas dinner for his mother, twin sisters and younger brother. For most men his age, such an act would mean just a few sloppy hours in the kitchen.

For Barkley, however, there is a much deeper meaning. He lived for 12 years at Forest Haven, the District's institution for the mentally retarded. His Christmas dinner will represent a year-long struggle to fight his way out of the dependency that was drilled into him in the institution.

Barkley was paralyzed from the waist down at the age of 5 in an automobile accident. Although he was not mentally retarded, his parents were forced to send him to Forest Haven because there were no other institutions to care for the physically handcapped members of low-income families.

Today, Barkley has his own efficiency apartment at 1301 Belmont St. NW, the city's second apartment built specifically for the handicapped to enable them to live as independent members of society.

Barkley is one of 20 disabled residents who live in the building, sponsored by Independent Living for the Handicapped (ILH), an organization started in 1974 by some parents of handicapped adults in the Washington area.

Beverly Price, the founder of ILH, said, "Years ago, I realized that people who have severe physical disabilities [but] were mentally alert were not considered as a group. They were always lumped in with the elderly, the sick, the mentally retarded.

"I guess it's not easily understandable to an average person what happens to a person who's 23 years old, who has a spinal cord injury and suddenly has to live with elderly sick people," said Price, who has a 34-year-old son afflicted by cerebral palsy.

The two-story building, just south of Cardozo High School, near 14th Street NW, opened in November after four years of struggling with the city and federal bureaucracies.

In 1980, ILH received a $200,000 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant to renovate a building into apartments for the handicapped. The group drew up plans to convert the long-vacant Carberry School on Capitol Hill, but that effort ran afoul of local preservationists and also was too expensive.

In 1982, ILH appealed to the current city housing director, Robert Moore, who provided the group with the city-owned site at 13th and Belmont NW. HUD increased its loan to $1 million, and the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development contributed $267,000. The tenants pay one-third of their income in rent; the remainder is subsidized under a federal program.

The building is specially equipped for people who are confined to wheelchairs. There is a ramp to the second floor, extra-wide doorways and kitchens and bathrooms equipped with low-placed counters and ovens to make them easier to use, handlebars and even a "drive-in" shower. ILH provides personal-care aides around the clock to help the tenants.

"We were so lucky," said Price. "The organizations in the neighborhood have agreed to provide a corps of volunteers to help the tenants," adding that the community "welcomed us with open arms."

Belmont Street provides an answer to the problem of how to cope in the world of the walking for Barkley, and the other tenants, all confined to wheelchairs. Florence Ford, who formerly had to wait for her son to take her down the steps of her apartment building, now may go out as much as she wishes.

"I've been out three Sundays straight. I've been out quite a bit, and today I'm going shopping," Ford said. "I am enjoying this place . . . . "I wouldn't trade it for nothing."

Before Thanksgiving, she said, she baked eight pies for a local church that hosted a dinner for the homeless. "I thought I was in the White House kitchen. I lined them all up on the counter, and it was beautiful," she said.

Barkley agrees, adding with pride, "Some people who left Forest Haven had to go back. I'm making it.