“The Good Doctor” is one of the few shows that puts an autistic character front and center. But the hit Sony TV-ABC series, which returns for its second season on Sept. 24, has another distinction. One of the writers, David Renaud, is a “good doctor” himself off-screen — and uses a wheelchair in daily life.
Canadian-born Renaud, who goes by “Doc” in the writers room, went to medical school to find a cure for paralysis after a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed at 19.
“When I went to medical school, the campus was not even accessible. I can’t tell you how many times I had to go through kitchens or even be carried up stairs to go to class,” Renaud tells Variety.
Now married with two children, Renaud has transitioned into a career in writing, working previously on “Blood & Oil” and Jason Katims’ “Pure Genius,” which Renaud recalls as a serendipitous staffing experience: “That show was unique, about a guy who started a hospital to find a cure for himself.”
“‘Good Doctor’ was the same sort of thing. The story is about autism, but in my mind, it’s a story about a disabled character. Autistic, blind, deaf, wheelchair-users — we’re all part of this big community of people who are struggling to have our stories told. And not just told, but told in an authentic way.”
To help achieve this, David Shore, creator of “The Good Doctor,” has inaugurated “Friday Afternoon Arguments” in his writers room, challenging his staff to create the most fleshed-out stories for the show.
“He loves the spirit of debate and we send two sides of an argument in every Friday. They’re like our writing exercises,” Renaud says. “He loves to represent different voices and different ideas, and so he has created a very diverse room with voices that you don’t necessarily see in a lot of writers rooms.”
The roster of contributors in Shore’s writers room includes not only “House” alumni like Liz Friedman and Simran Baidwan, but also practicing nurse Karen Struck and Mark Rozeman, who is on the autism spectrum.
“You don’t see a lot of people with disabilities in front of the camera. Less behind the camera, perhaps,” says Renaud. “I think there’s something that makes people uncomfortable about seeing somebody with a disability. They feel sorry for the person. They feel guilty that the person has that life.” Renaud shrugs, “Actually, that’s just my life, you know?”
When setting up meetings, Renaud prefers not to draw attention to his wheelchair at first. “There’s something about surprising someone that puts them a little bit off-guard,” he says. “Then, I just launch into my shtick. And some of it is, “Oh yeah, by the way, I have this disability. This is what that’s all about.’ Not just because I have it and I feel like I need to apologize for it, but because this is why it adds value to the story. In this show, Shaun Murphy (played by Freddie Highmore) has a disability. He has autism. And I want to help bring that voice to the show.”
Renaud insists that feeling sorry for people under the umbrella designation of “disabled” is a mistake. “I don’t go around feeling bad for myself. I think there are challenges to just pushing past what you see.”
In light of Easterseals’ recently issued challenge for TV-series writers to create at least one character with a disability this season, Renaud is optimistic that with more representation on-screen and off, stories of disability will not seem so out of the ordinary and apprehension will eventually develop into comfort among viewers.
“We’ve had a guy in a wheelchair in front of the camera in an episode. We’ve had other autistic characters in front of the camera,” Renaud cites. “Hopefully, putting disability in front of the camera, soon people won’t want to look the other way. They’ll just be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve seen that. I don’t know why it looks so familiar to me, but it does. I think they’re just a normal person. I don’t know why.'”
He continues: “It’s because we’re telling normal stories about them. We’re telling normal stories about people who are just like everybody else — struggling to get through life and struggling to find happiness and struggling to better themselves. And I think that’s a universal truth.”
Although he is very happy participating in the Friday Afternoon Arguments for the time being, Renaud hopes to one day tell his own story.
“I want my own show, eventually. I do think there are some interesting things about my experience going through medical school and being a resident on the floor with a different kind of disability in what is a really big challenge. And there are a million stories as to how that went that I think are interesting.”