The Bush administration yesterday proposed the first in a series of major new regulations to require all but the smallest businesses to provide access to the 43 million Americans who are disabled.

The rules proposed yesterday cover every type of business from health spas and private schools to restaurants, grocery stores and automatic teller machines. The specifics range from the placement of toilet paper rolls to the type of carpeting that can be used in public facilities to the distance between library stacks and the height of raised numbers on a telephone.

Like federal safety laws, the regulations spell out in inches and even millimeters the appropriate height, number and position of everything from parking lot spaces to how far from the wall a telephone can protrude.

Many of the biggest national retailers and restaurant chains already have begun to implement some of features set out in the new regulations. But for most other restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, clothiers, banks, conference centers, theaters and sports complexes, the regulations could alter significantly their plans as they build new stores or renovate existing ones.

For example, hotels would have to have at least 5 percent of their rooms equipped for the disabled, restaurants would have to have a specified number of movable tables proportionately distributed among smoking and nonsmoking areas, and every supermarket checkout counter nationwide would have to be accessible to customers in wheelchairs.

The regulations proposed yesterday by the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board are only the first of three sets of sweeping business regulations that will be proposed in the coming weeks under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The biggest impact on business from the new law is expected next month when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issues proposed regulations governing employment of the disabled.

Patrisha A. Wright, director of governmental affairs for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund Inc., called the technical regulations governing the structure of facilities "a good first step," but said the real test would be the "philosophical regulations that come out of Justice {Department} and the EEOC."

Those guidelines will detail what steps employers must take to ensure that they are not discriminating against qualified job applicants with a disability. To comply, employers not only will have to hire people with disabilities but also modify work sites and equipment to meet the needs of those individuals.

The Justice Department will also issue regulations next month designed to protect the disabled from being discriminated against in their treatment by various establishments -- perhaps barring a restaurant from seating the disabled in separate areas away from other diners.

The regulations governing physical access apply only to new construction or business renovations after Jan. 1, 1992. The law initially applies to companies with 25 or more employees, but that number drops to 15 employees in 1995. The employment and public accommodation regulations are scheduled to go into effect in July 1992.

Business reaction to the proposed regulations yesterday was muted. Most businesses said they would have no comment until they had seen all the government proposals. "It's a matter of digesting at this point," said Anne Curtis of the National Restaurant Association in Washington.

Corrie Zowotow of Burger King Corp., a fast-food chain with new construction or renovations almost constantly underway, said the chain already complies with all the proposed access requirements. "It's part of our upfront costs," she said. "It's baked into the culture."

Accurate estimates on how much it would cost business to implement the regulations are an unknown. Pete Lunnie of the National Association of Manufacturers said many larger corporations have made changes to accommodate the disabled under the 1973 law governing federal contractors. But he could not quantify how much it would cost business under the new law.