DISABLED Americans are "a great untapped resource" whose participation in the work force should be supported by affirmative action, a majority of Americans believe.That conclusion, reached by polling group Louis Harris and Associates in a survey for the National Organization on Disability (NOD), was drawn from a series of questions on Americans' attitudes about the disabled, the first poll ever of its kind. The survey showed that Americans correctly understand the challenges disabled people face in finding work, supporting themselves financially, and leading active social lives. And while the public is divided over the issue of affirmative action for minorities, Americans recognize that "by their very condition disabled people face many more challenges than the rest of the population and therefore steps ought to be taken to give them additional assistance ... namely affirmative action," the Harris report concludes. According to the poll, 78 percent of the public see the disabled more as having underused potential to contribute by working and producing as compared with 11 percent who see them more as a burden on taxpayers. And 82 percent think greater employment of the disabled would be "a boost to the nation." Eighty-one percent favor affirmative action programs similar to those for women and minorities; 14 percent oppose them. "I was surprised that the support of the public was as overwhelmingly positive as it was in its desire to give the disabled a chance to come into the mainstream," says Alan Reich, president of NOD. In the survey, 89 percent support spending "to make schools, transportation, workplaces, and other public facilities more accessible." Even though 61 percent believe that either "a lot" or "some" of the Americans receiving government disability benefits are receiving them fraudulently, 89 percent of the public still support programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and veterans' benefits. The poll found that better educated and younger Americans know the most about the disabled and are the most supportive of efforts to boost their participation in society. "They are the strongest potential allies of the disability movement among the public," Louis Harris told reporters yesterday. According to the United States attorney general, 58 percent of all disabled working-age men and 80 percent of all disabled working-age women were not employed at the beginning of 1990. Fifty-nine percent of the public perceive discrimination on the part of employers against the disabled; for the disabled, the figure is 52 percent. But over the last 10 years, say both groups, discrimination has declined. NOD commissioned the poll to help itself become more "purposeful and efficient" in its aim of expanding participation of the disabled in society, according to NOD president Reich. NOD learned, for example, that the public is largely unaware of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The act guarantees equal opportunity for the disabled in jobs, public accommodations, transportation, government services, and telecommunications. According to the Harris survey, only 18 percent of the public are aware such a law was passed - and, surprisingly, only 16 percent of disabled people are aware of it.