AUSTIN, Texas (AP) _ Doctors told James Caldwell he would never hold a meaningful job or live a normal life after a half-filled fuel can exploded as he was lighting an outdoor grill, leaving him blind and confined to a wheelchair.

The doctors were wrong.

And early next month, Caldwell will receive the nation's highest honor for people with handicaps.

Despite the 1962 accident and the doctors' dire warnings, Caldwell has become an International Business Machines system analyst, helping develop new products for IBM.

He has been named Handicapped American for 1985 by the President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, which plans to award him the President's Trophy, the nation's highest award for the handicapped.

''It's a real honor,'' Caldwell said, ''I have a chance to bring what I think is a reasonable message.''

The message, Caldwell said, is that people ought to be looked at for their abilities, not their disabilities.

As an IBM systems analyst, Caldwell, 48, designed a computer program that uses a voice synthesizer to aid the blind in editing. But that technology wasn't available for Caldwell when he wanted to learn about computer programming.

He became interested in computers when he heard about efforts to use computers to print Braile.

With the assistance of another paraplegic who read IBM computer manuals aloud to him, Caldwell learned computer programming after a year of studying. He eventually landed a job with a Maryland telephone company.

''I go through life with an absolute belief there is a power bigger than me rolling pearls. A lot of people never bother to look down.

''I not only look down, I pick them up,'' Caldwell said.

Later, Caldwell earned a doctorate degree in general business from the University of Texas, graduating with honors. Caldwell says he has always been used to ''self-reliance'' and he attributes his drive to live a normal life to his background.

''In our household we had a multigeneration family hardened by the Depression,'' he said. ''Taking care of yourself was something you had to do.''