Several years ago, a man riding a motorcycle saw a house on fire. He parked, ran into the home and helped carry out a disabled woman.
And what did he do for a living? Well, he was disabled, he said, which made him no less a hero.
But it did make us wonder how someone riding a motorcycle can be ineligible for "substantial gainful employment," which is considered to be $1,040 a month by the Social Security Administration.
Many working people probably have a similar story to tell about encountering a person who seems capable of doing some form of work only to learn the person is disabled and collecting disability insurance benefits.
It is particularly galling when the person is young and, perhaps, throwing a Frisbee in Kennedy Park.
Over the past 40 years, the number of Americans on DI has increased sixfold, from 1.4 million in 1970 to 8.3 million in 2011.
In 1970, 1.3 percent of working-age adults, those between 20 and 64, received DI benefits. Today, it's 4.5 percent.
Some of the increase is easy to explain. Workers are more likely to become disabled as they get older, and the percentage of older workers is growing.
On the other hand, work has become less risky and physically demanding as we have shifted to a service economy so, presumably, fewer people should be injured and able to work longer with mild disabilities at less strenuous jobs.
Over those years, many women joined the workforce, increasing the number of people eligible for benefits. Today, 2.1 percent of DI beneficiaries are women and 2.4 percent men.
Twice in the past 40 years, Congress has expanded the number of maladies covered by DI and included more subjective illnesses, like aching backs and depression. As a result, workers are entering the system at younger ages and staying for longer periods of time.
The Social Security Administration estimates that by 2022, 5 percent of working-age adults will be receiving DI benefits. Meanwhile, the program is scheduled to run out of money by 2016.
There are a host of options available to Congress: reducing benefits, decreasing cost-of-living adjustments or increasing DI taxes on current workers.
For some, receiving disability benefits may seem better than working.
The average DI beneficiary receives $13,200 a year. Meanwhile, a person working full-time, year-round at the minimum wage would earn $15,600.
Remember, $13,200 is the average benefit, meaning half of recipients receive more. They can earn up to $9,000 a year over and above that without losing benefits and, after two years, can receive free Medicare health coverage.
As a result, disability may look like an attractive option to anyone stuck on the lower rungs of the wage scale, or a person forced out of work and out of options. And, indeed, applications for DI benefits have jumped sharply during this recession.
Although there are varying levels of disability and periodic reviews, the truth is that people who receive disability are very unlikely to leave the program before turning 65 and switching to Social Security benefits.
That may be because the program requires no re-training or rehabilitation program.
Another added cost is the variation in positive decisions granted by administrative law judges. While the average judge grants DI in about 60 percent of cases, some judges are in the 90-95 percent range. One judge in West Virginia only denied benefits in four cases out of 2,013 cases he handled over 18 months.
Since cases are assigned to judges randomly, the variation clearly shows the process is flawed.
Rather than raising taxes or borrowing, Congress should do two things:
Establish an expectation that people will return to work and require retraining, job placement and more frequent reviews, especially for the youngest and least disabled. A new program in Great Britain found that every $1 spent on reviews and retraining resulted in $11 of savings.
Secondly, Congress must establish a system for examining why some judges grant disability so often and other judges do not.
Since the average DI beneficiary earns $247,000 over time in the program, bringing those judges into line could help save the program by saving billions of dollars.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.
(Most of the statistics in this editorial came from the Social Security Administration and a Congressional Budget Office report of 2012 titled "Policy Options for the Social Security Disability Insurance Program.")