For those considerate souls who are interested in referring to people with disability in a modern, acceptable way, the People With Disability organisation has released a document which makes things easy by laying out some clear guidelines. It's called the Guide to Reporting Disability, but obviously it's not limited to reporters.
People with disability picture by Shutterstock
The "proper" way of referring to various groups is always evolving. Part of that is because people start using terms with an official capacity like "retarded" or "spastic" as an insult, which is a shame. It can be hard sometimes to keep up with it. So it's a good thing documents like this are being released by advocates, and if a relatively tiny bit of effort can be spent on my part to make someone feel better, it's worth doing.
A few highlights of the document:
Put the person first. Say “person with disability” rather than “disabled person.” Say “people with disability” rather than “the disabled.” A person isn’t defined by their disability – they are a person before anything else.
It is okay to use words or phrases such as "disabled," "disability" or "people with disability" when talking about disability issues. Ask the people you are with which term they prefer if they have disability. When talking about people without disability, it is okay to say "people without disability." But do not refer to them as "normal" or "healthy." These terms can make people with disability feel as though there is something wrong with them and that they are "abnormal."
When talking about places with accommodations for people with disability, use the term "accessible" rather than "disabled" or "handicapped." For example, refer to an "accessible" parking space rather than a "disabled" or "handicapped" parking space.
Just because someone has a disability, it doesn't mean he/she is "courageous", "brave", "special" or "superhuman." People with disability are the same as everyone else. It is not unusual or unique for someone with disability to have talents, skills and abilities.
Obviously words like "retard" are best avoided. As someone who knows someone with serious mental illness, and not even that closely, that word makes me cringe a bit. Though People With Disability recommends going a step further and steering clear of words like "crazy" or "nuts" when referring to someone with mental illness.
You can download the guide here. For some reason it wants to open in Internet Explorer on my machine - random - but it's a normal doc file.