President Clinton yesterday directed federal agencies to step up their efforts to recruit and hire people with disabilities, saying he wants the government to serve as a model for private-sector employers.

Despite the nation's strong economy, "there are people in places still not touched by our prosperity. Among them are almost three out of four Americans with severe disabilities who want to work, but aren't working. This is not just a missed opportunity for them, it's a missed opportunity for all the rest of us, too," Clinton said in his Saturday radio address.

Clinton issued what he called the "first-ever government plan" to hire and promote the disabled at all levels of the federal work force, from entry-level jobs to the senior executive ranks.

In addition to recruiting and promoting people with disabilities, Clinton called on federal agencies to "reach out" to disabled students and to adjust their employment procedures if necessary to attract qualified job applicants who are disabled.

Clinton also challenged Congress to pass a bipartisan bill that he said would ensure that the disabled do not lose their health care coverage when they take a job. Under current law, many people with disabilities cannot keep their Medicaid or Medicare coverage if they work, the White House said.

The House is scheduled to take up the Work Incentives Improvement Act this week, and Rep. J. C. Watts (R-Okla.) said yesterday, "I believe it will pass overwhelmingly." The Senate passed its version, sponsored by Sens. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), by a 99 to 0 vote. The House Commerce Committee approved similar legislation, which provides mandatory funding for grants and a pilot program. But the House Ways and Means Committee last week approved its version without the guaranteed funding.

Contending that "we'll be spending the Medicaid money regardless," Clinton said, "Americans with disabilities who want to work shouldn't have to wait one more day."

Clinton's plan directing federal agencies to hire the disabled was developed by the Office of Personnel Management after a task force study that began last year. The task force was asked to make recommendations that would bring working-age people with disabilities into gainful employment at a rate approaching that of the general adult population.

The plan, "Accessing Opportunity," notes that the government operates under a series of laws dating back to 1973 that encourage the employment of the blind, deaf and others who are physically or mentally impaired. It urges agencies to ensure that "reasonable accommodations"--such as flexible work schedules, modified work sites and special equipment--are provided for applicants and employees with disabilities.

"The cost of a job or work environment accommodation can often be minimal," the plan said.

OPM Director Janice R. Lachance called the plan "a clear message that the president's promise to create a government that looks like America must exclude no one. . . . We now have a road map, and our job will be to make it happen."