Lee Page's money is as green as anyone else's, but he regularly encounters difficulty spending it in many Washington businesses.

Frugality is not the problem. Physical barriers are.

More often than he cares to count, Page, confined to a hand-powered wheelchair, finds he cannot get in the front doors of restaurants, stores or office buildings, particularly in Washington's older buildings with their narrow doorways and steps. And, even if he can get in the front door, he often can't proceed through narrow aisles, negotiate his way to the elevators or reach the restrooms.

"It is kind of discouraging. You get separated from the crowd of people you came with," said Page, a lobbyist for the Paralyzed Veterans of America and a quadriplegic who broke his neck in a car accident seven years ago.

Now, however, a sweeping federal law passed with little fanfare this summer gives Page hope that he and the country's other 34 million people with disabilities will eventually gain the same access as the able-bodied.

The law, known as the Americans with Disabilities Act, is designed to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities, forbidding discrimination at work, on mass transportation and in public accommodations. It requires improved access for the handicapped in existing buildings frequented by the public and requires eliminating physical barriers in new or remodeled commercial structures.

Anywhere the general public is asked in, the law says, the invitation also must extend to the blind, deaf, mobility impaired and other disabled people.

Existing buildings covered by the law include stores, many office buildings, restaurants, bars, hotels, airports, gas stations, automated bank teller machine lobbies, sports and entertainment facilities, doctors and lawyers offices, libraries, day-care centers, private schools and parks.

Existing warehouses and office buildings not open to the public need not be modified to provide accessibility, but new structures and structures slated for renovation must meet the new guidelines. Only private clubs, facilities run by religious organizations and personal residences are exempt.

While handicapped activists are excited about the bill as a whole, they say the provisions dealing with buildings hold particular promise for integrating the disabled more fully into society.

"Once society becomes more accustomed to seeing people with disabilities out and about and participating in everyday activities," said Mary Lou Breslin, executive director of the Berkeley, Calif.-based Disability Rights, Education and Defense Fund, "the whole idea of integration in employment and education and so on will seem perfectly natural, where it really doesn't now."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the bill that initially was proposed, said it is satisfied with the version that became law, although it still has some concerns. "There are a lot of unanswered questions," said Nancy Fulco, an attorney with the chamber.

The deadline for complying with the law is one to three years away, but building owners, managers and tenants need to start grappling with the implications now, she said.

Specifically, the law calls for increased accessibility in all existing business facilities within a little more than a year, if removing the barriers is easily accomplished at a low cost. That could include, for instance, adding curb cuts and ramps, substituting special door hinges to widen passageways and installing grab bars in lavatories.

"This is a fairly minimal requirement. Congress had in mind trying to change the existing physical plant of the United States to a degree, but recognizing that retrofitting is a very costly item," said John L. Wodatch, a disability rights attorney with the Department of Justice, the agency writing the rules to implement the law.

Larger businesses must modify their premises by Jan. 26, 1992. Small businesses with 25 or fewer employees and with gross receipts of less than $1 million a year are not subject to legal penalties, up to $50,000 for a first offense, for six months after that date. Still smaller companies, with 10 or fewer employees and gross receipts of less than $500,000, will not be subject to penalties until Jan. 26, 1993.

Newly built or renovated structures face stiffer requirements: Those occupied after Jan. 26, 1993, must be free of all barriers to the disabled.

Ellen Harland, an architect with the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, the agency charged with setting design specifications for the construction industry, said she believes the new construction requirement will prove particularly important over the long term.

"We are not attempting to rebuild America, but this is the end of building inaccessible buildings," she said.

The types of architectural changes that can mean a world of difference to a handicapped person might well pass unnoticed by an able-bodied person, said Kim Beasley, director for architecture and barrier-free design for the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

National Easter Seal Society lobbyist David Capozzi agreed, saying buildings constructed to this standard "will not look like a jungle gym of grab bars everywhere."

Instead, an architect is likely to design the building's entrance at ground level, eliminating the need for steps and ramps, and specify elevator buttons in Braille.

Other accessible design elements include assisted listening devices built into lecture halls, flashing alarm systems designed to guide the visually impaired, wider doorways and halls, and specially outfitted bathrooms for the wheelchair bound.

The new law replaces the current patchwork of governmental efforts aimed at dealing with handicapped accessibility. Many state and local building codes are based on a 1961 voluntary standard for accessible design features. Starting in 1968, physical barriers were banned in new federal buildings. Cities using revenue-sharing funds dating back to 1973 installed curb cuts as a condition of receiving the funds.

Despite the efforts so far, said Harland, "the awakening to the problem has just been a little too slow and done in an irregular manner. The Americans with Disabilities Act brings minimum standards and also applies to the private sector."

The Easter Seal Society's Capozzi is among those who worry that word of the new legal requirements is not reaching those who need to know. Other than a few large employers, most businesses, the general public and the disabled are uninformed, he said.

The Chamber of Commerce has similar concerns, Fulco said. For its part, the chamber is preparing a compliance guide that lays out responsibilities and processes for employers and business serving the public, she said.

No one is sure what the precise cost of complying with the legislation will be. The budget reconciliation bill passed last fall contains a new tax credit for small businesses complying with the disability access law. Companies with 30 or fewer full-time employees can claim a 50 percent credit for expenditures of $250 to $10,250 to comply with the law in a tax year.

The federal government has been unable to estimate the cost of modifying existing buildings because each structure is different, said Fulco. However, getting new buildings to conform with the law is expected to add only an average 0.5 percent to the total building tab, said Harland.

Michael Jauer is one building official who is optimistic about the industry's ability to cope with the law. "The more I learn about the issue, it seems that the sorts of changes that will be required won't be that onerous," said Jauer, director of legislative affairs for the Building Owners and Managers Association.

However, the method of enforcing compliance is raising some concerns. The Justice Department has been charged with enforcing the law.

David A. Harris, president of the National Institute of Building Sciences, a federally chartered group that seeks to eliminate barriers to affordable structures, said he is urging the Justice Department to use the existing building permit and certificate of occupation process to ensure compliance with the new law. Such an approach, he said, "makes eminent good sense rather than trying to enforce the law after the fact."