Secretary of Education William Bennett urged yesterday that graduates of Gallaudet College, the nation's only accredited institution for the hearing-impaired, live independently, concentrate on work and forget the pursuit of happiness.

Bennett, who received an honorary doctor of law degree, exhorted the 222 graduates to capitalize on their handicaps for the benefit of mankind.

Bennett told them to "look forward to work, and approach your work with passion and engagement . . . . Work kills fewer hearts than boredom and idleness do." He added, "Forget pursuing happiness. Pursue other things and, with luck, happiness will come to you."

Bennett also had special praise for the graduates: "Too many people are preoccupied with supposed limitations. But, all of you here, who in fact must deal with very real limitations, have proven you can overcome them.

"You have not expected too little of yourselves and I firmly believe that, as a result of your hard work and confidence in your abilities, you shall continue to achieve . . . . Strive to assure that you can live more independently, to seek and find employment and to enjoy the highest possible quality of life."

Bennett was criticized by some members of Congress recently for hiring an aide, Eileen Gardner, who had criticized federal programs for the handicapped. She resigned after Bennett said he found some of her opinions repugnant.

A spokesman for Bennett said the secretary had no ulterior motive in accepting the invitation to speak at Gallaudet, where two-thirds of all college-trained deaf professionals obtain their degrees. The speaking engagement "just fit into his schedule," a spokesman said.

The commencement was punctuated by the jubilant antics of many of the graduates, who were busy popping the tops of bottles of champagne and didn't watch the interpreters who signed Bennett's speech.

"People were in a playful mood," said Tonia Feith, 26, from Sherman, Tex., who graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in communications. "There was a lot of excitement. We tried to create mischief," Feith said through an interpreter.

Brian Strom's satisfaction was evident as he smiled broadly and said in sign language, "I loved the ceremony . I'd like to have that again and again and again."

A native of Illinois, Strom, 23, left Gallaudet with an undergraduate degree in the college of arts and sciences.